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Brady Files Suit to Obtain Information on FBI’s Handling of Firearms Background Checks During the Pandemic

Washington, D.C., January 25, 2021 – Following unprecedented increases in guns and ammunition sales throughout 2020, Brady has filed suit against the Federal Bureau of Investigation seeking responses to unanswered Freedom of Information Act requests on the National Instant Background Check System (NICS).

In October 2019, Brady submitted a FOIA request seeking to better understand the FBI’s standard operating procedures (SOPs) for NICS. Eight months later, in July 2020, Brady submitted a FOIA request for NICS data during the pandemic with an emphasis on transparency regarding any new policies or procedures implemented during the pandemic to ensure the FBI is able to keep up during the concurrent gun sale spike. Brady has not received one page in response after about 15 months for the SOPs request and about six months for the pandemic policies request.

Brady President Kris Brown shared:

“NICS is the cornerstone upon which all of our nation’s gun violence prevention laws and regulations are built. It is therefore vital that we understand how NICS is functioning given the unprecedented events of the last year and the reported strain on the system, as well as how the FBI has altered their operating procedures to cope with the surge in gun and ammunition sales. With this information, we continue to work with the Department of Justice and FBI to help ensure that we are working with all requisite parties to keep firearms out of the hands of prohibited purchasers and support the government in instituting best practices to keep NICS functioning smoothly.”

In 2020, there was an unprecedented surge in gun sales, leading to record numbers of background checks initiated in the background check system – and the FBI has only three business days under federal law to determine whether or not a potential purchaser is prohibited before a dealer can transfer the firearm without the completion of the check. In December 2020 alone, there were 3,937,066 background checks initiated, the highest on record for any month since the NICS system launched in 1998. For all of 2020, there were 39,695,315 background checks initiated, a 40 percent increase over the 28,369,750 background checks initiated in 2019. Importantly, this data only reflects gun sales where background checks are initiated. Many private sales occur without any background check and these are not included in the NICS data. Additionally, some background checks result in a denial, meaning that the transfer to the prospective purchaser cannot legally proceed.

Using NICS data, Brady calculates gun sales estimates by adding together the number of checks listed under “handgun,” “long gun,” “multiple-gun,” and “other.” The number of “multiple-gun” checks is multiplied by two in the calculation, as each “multiple-gun” check represents at least two impending firearm purchases. This methodology excludes additional categories, including “permit,” “permit recheck,” and “pawn shop redemption.” While only an estimate, it appears that there were approximately 20,672,849 sales in all of 2020, a 64 percent increase over the 12,603,051 estimated sales in 2019. More on Brady’s NICS data sales estimates.

About the National Instant Background Check System (NICS):

The National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) is the federal system that checks available records to determine if a prospective firearm purchaser is legally permitted to receive a firearm. This system, which was created by the Brady Bill, is essential for keeping guns out of the hands of individuals who should not possess them and is a vital tool for Federal Firearms Licensees (FFLs) to ensure that gun sales are legal. NICS is operated by the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) and tracks data related to each Brady Background Check initiated. Since it was established in 1998, there have been more than 300 million Brady Background Checks initiated through the system.

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Brady has one powerful mission — to unite all Americans against gun violence. We work across Congress, the courts, and our communities with over 90 grassroots chapters, bringing together young and old, red and blue, and every shade of color to find common ground in common sense. In the spirit of our namesakes Jim and Sarah Brady, we have fought for over 45 years to take action, not sides, and we will not stop until this epidemic ends. It’s in our hands.


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