This summer’s spate of mass shootings has raised questions about why people like John Houser and Dylann Roof were able to buy a gun. Both of the men passed federal background checks, despite records of severe mental health issues and illegal drug use, respectively, that should have shown up in the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) database.
To better understand how NICS works, it’s helpful to look at why gun purchases do get denied. Since its inception, the system has put a stop to over 2.4 million transactions at federally licensed firearms dealers (FFL). Of those denials, 1.2 million occurred in states where the FBI runs NICS checks for dealers, with the other half occurring in states where a designated “point of contact” contacts NICS directly.
The list below uses information provided by the FBI on the background checks it has performed for licensed gun sellers. Here’s a category-by-category breakdown of what triggered denials between 1998 and June 2015.
1. Convicted of a crime punishable by more than one year or a misdemeanor punishable by more than two years: 674,232
NICS has stopped more than 600,000 people convicted of a crime from acquiring a weapon since 1998. When the background check system flags a purchaser for a felony or another qualifying conviction, the transaction is stopped.
All purchasers are required to fill out a Firearms Transaction Record, or Form 4473, before a background check is initiated. If they lie about their criminal history on the form, they will have committed a new felony punishable by up to five years in prison, though it isn’t clear how often these perjurers are punished.
2. Fugitive from Justice: 137,505
A surprising amount of people with open arrest warrants attempt to buy a gun. When a purchaser is flagged as a fugitive, the FBI contacts the agency that issued the warrant to see if it’s still open, alerting them to the address of the FFL that processed the check. This sometimes results in an arrest in the gun store. The FBI does not keep data on the types of warrants flagged by NICS, so it’s impossible to tell whether the system is more often snaring bank robbers on the lam or parents skipping out on child support.
3. Misdemeanor Crime of Domestic Violence Conviction: 116,406
This red flag is strictly limited to misdemeanor convictions for abusing a live-in significant other or child — a misdemeanor for violence against a sibling, parent, or an intimate partner who lives out of the home would not disqualify a purchaser. It only became a prohibiting category after the 1996 passage of Senator Frank Lautenberg’s amendment to the Gun Control Act of 1968.
4. Unlawful User/Addicted to a Controlled Substance: 104,768
The fourth most common reason for being rejected by a federal background check is also the category that should have stopped Dylann Roof from getting his Glock, since Roof had confessed to illegal possession of a controlled substance. Despite the fact that the National Institutes of Health estimates almost 25 million Americans used an illicit drug in the past month, NICS only has about 24,000 active drug-related records.
5. State Prohibitor: 60,679
Many states have their own additional categories of prohibited purchasers that they report to NICS. South Carolina, for example, denies the right to own a gun to anyone known to abuse alcohol, which the federal government does not track, despite being the substance known to be most associated with gun violence.
6. Protection/Restraining Order for Domestic Violence: 49,254
Though restraining orders only remain in NICS temporarily, as opposed to convictions for crimes which are permanently prohibiting, gun restrictions on those who have received such orders are believed to be among the most effective reducers of domestic homicide. Sixty percent of intimate partner homicides are committed with guns, and the risk of death grows five-fold if a woman is in an abusive relationship with a man who has access to a gun.
7. Under Indictment/Information: 31,754
Anyone who is under indictment but not yet convicted of a crime carrying a potential year-long jail sentence is barred from owning a gun. However, these are among the most difficult categories of prohibitions to confirm, since the disposition of charges may not be automatically submitted to NICS, forcing inspectors to contact local court clerks to determine whether the purchaser is prohibited.
8. Adjudicated Mental Health: 18,678
Disqualifying mental health records form the second largest body of records held by NICS. Simply receiving a diagnosis of a severe mental illness like schizophrenia is not enough to put an individual in this category — a judge must legally declare them mentally unfit to own a gun or involuntarily commit them to a mental institution.
Though NICS does have access to a large number of disqualifying mental health records, an unknown number still aren’t reported. In the case of Lafayette shooter John Houser, though a judge considered his severe mental health problems in 2008, doctors did not recommend he be involuntarily committed, and even if they had, Georgia law would have required the purging of any records of that commitment by 2013, before he purchased his gun.
9. Illegal/Unlawful Alien: 15,326
NICS holds more records on illegal/unlawful aliens than any other type of prohibited purchaser — more than 6.3 million — even though these denials are rare compared to those for purchasers convicted of other crimes. A purchaser does not, however, need to be a U.S. citizen to pass a background check: The FBI allows sales to foreigners legally in the country, so long as they are a permanent resident, have come legally without a visa and meet residency requirements, or have a visa and a hunting or sporting license.
10. Federally Denied Persons File: 5,841
This is a catch-all category that includes various people whom the FBI deems ineligible to possess a firearm even though the relevant state records may not be entered into NICS or the National Crime Information Center. Also included in the Federally Denied Persons File are people who may not possess guns as a result of a deferred judgement.
11. Dishonorable Discharge: 923
Because violations of military conduct are handled by a separate judicial system, those found guilty are not marked as felons but rather receive a dishonorable discharge from their branch of the service. This does not carry the prison time that a criminal felony conviction would need to mandate inclusion in NICS, but because of the severity of a dishonorable discharge, it is reported to the system.
12. Renounced U.S. Citizenship: 66
According to the State department, someone who formally renounces their U.S. citizenship also “must renounce all the rights and privileges associated with such citizenships.” That includes those rights under the Second Amendment, even though legal aliens may buy and possess firearms. This category is exceedingly rare.
UPDATE: An earlier version of this post, which is based on data from background checks performed by the FBI, did not mention the second set of denied purchases occurring in so-called “point of contact” states. Language has been added to note those additional denials.
[Photo: Neon Tommy]