On November 30, 1993, President Bill Clinton signed into law the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act, establishing a system of background checks for firearm purchasers. The legislation, colloquially known as the Brady Bill, brought about a significant shift in the way firearms are bought and sold in the United States.
The law originated from an assassination attempt in 1981, when a man with a history of criminal convictions and severe mental illness shot President Ronald Reagan and his press secretary, James Brady. The attack left Brady paralyzed and prompted him and his wife, Sarah, to begin campaigning for a federal background check system that they said could reduce gun violence.
Before the Brady Bill, federal law barred certain people from owning guns. They included minors, drug users, and people convicted of a felony or committed to a mental institution. But there was no national system in place to verify whether a prospective gun buyer fell into one of those categories. While nearly two dozen states established their own background check systems, in most of the country, the honor system reigned, with gun purchasers simply having to fill out a form attesting to their legal eligibility.
The Brady Bill requires all federally licensed gun dealers to run background checks on their customers through either the FBI or a state or local agency. To streamline the process of conducting those checks, the law set up the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, or NICS. The Brady Bill also expanded the categories of people prohibited from owning firearms to encompass those dishonorably discharged from the military or convicted of certain misdemeanors or domestic violence crimes.
Since NICS came online in 1998, it has stopped millions of unlawful gun sales, but gun deaths have continued to increase. Part of the problem is that not every gun seller is subject to the Brady Bill’s requirements, and lost and incomplete records mean some prohibited people still slip through.
To mark the 30th anniversary of the Brady Bill’s signing, The Trace has compiled a list of numbers that chart the law’s impact on gun purchases and public safety.
The number of background checks conducted since NICS began operations (November 30, 1998 – October 31, 2023)
While the bulk of these background checks were for firearm purchases, some were for concealed carry permits, gun pawns, and other transfers covered by the law. The number of checks per year has grown significantly over time, increasing by an average of 5 percent each year. In 2020, the number of NICS checks hit an all-time high of 39 million, up 40 percent from 2019. The increase reflects the record number of gun sales that occurred during the COVID-19 pandemic. [FBI NICS Division]
The number of federal background checks that resulted in a denial
These denials occurred because an FBI search of the NICS indices turned up a record that legally disqualified the person from owning firearms. This total does not include denials in states where state or local law enforcement handles the background checks. In 2023, the Bureau of Justice Statistics estimated that federal and state agencies combined had denied a total of 4.4 million firearm background check applications since 1994. [FBI and Bureau of Justice Statistics]
3 in 200 (or 1.5 percent)
The proportion of firearm background checks that result in a denial
This estimate from the Bureau of Justice Statistics encompasses denials issued at both the state and federal levels. Between 1998 and 2020, state and federal background checks blocked an average of 509 prohibited gun purchases and permits each day. However, when BJS looked solely at 2019 and 2020 — a period that overlaps with the pandemic gun-buying surge — the average number of denials jumped to 878 per day. [Bureau of Justice Statistics]
1 in 2 (or 51 percent)
The proportion of denials that are the result of felony convictions
Federal law prohibits people from owning firearms if they have been convicted of a felony or certain misdemeanors. Since the national background checks system went into place, this prohibitor has been the most common reason applications are denied. Compared to the FBI, state and local agencies deny for felony reasons at a lower rate, but one that still accounts for the largest proportion of denials. State and local agencies deny applications for state prohibitions and mental health reasons at a higher rate than the FBI. [FBI and Bureau of Justice Statistics]
The number of significant federal gun control laws passed since the Brady Bill that remain in effect
The Bipartisan Safer Communities Act, which President Joe Biden signed in 2022, was the first major gun reform law passed since the Brady Bill in 1993. President Bill Clinton approved a ban on assault weapons in 1994, but that law expired 10 years later. There have been other federal gun bills enacted since Brady, but none that imposed significant new gun regulations. For example, the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act, or PLCAA — signed by President George W. Bush in 2005 — protects gun manufacturers from lawsuits stemming from the criminal misuse of their products.
The number of active records in the NICS indices
NICS is a matrix of databases containing records about people who cannot own, buy, or possess firearms. Most background checks through NICS return results within minutes, but missing or incomplete records can cause delays. If a check isn’t completed within three days, the gun sale can proceed in most cases. This gap is known as the Charleston Loophole. [FBI]
At least 24
The number of bills proposed in Congress to close or partially close the private sales loophole
The private sales loophole, also known as the gun show loophole, is one of the largest gaps in the background check system. While brick-and-mortar gun stores and other federally licensed firearms dealers are legally obligated to initiate background checks, that requirement does not extend to so-called private sellers, a group that has historically been loosely defined under federal law. Since 1999, congressional lawmakers have filed at least two dozen bills to close all or some of the private sales loophole. While no such bill has passed, the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act did expand who is legally obligated to obtain a federal license before selling firearms, potentially decreasing the number of private sales.
The number of states that have laws expanding background checks to cover private sales
While Congress has failed to pass a universal background check bill, at least 20 states now require background checks on all or most gun sales, including on private sales. Minnesota and Michigan were the latest states to enact such laws, passing them in 2023. [The Trace]
The decline in federally licensed gun dealers since the Brady Bill
While gun sales have grown significantly since 2000, the number of gun dealers has been on the decline. From 1985 to 1994, an average of 234,299 gun dealers — more dealers than gas stations or McDonald’s — held valid federal firearms licenses each fiscal year. Many of these were “kitchen-table” dealers, so called because they operated without a storefront and were often selling guns out of their homes.
By the late-1990s, licensing reforms pushed by the Clinton administration combined with the Brady Bill to put the dealer population on a downward trend. There were 52,000 gun dealers in 2020, down nearly 80 percent from the 1985-to-1994 average. [Violence Policy Center and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives]
The number of people killed in firearm homicides since the Brady Bill’s enactment (1994-2023 partial)
The Brady Bill’s main goal was to curb gun violence, which hit record levels in the 10 years leading up to its passage. While gun homicide rates have declined since the law took effect in 1994, they have not fallen by as much as many had hoped. An average of 15,300 people died each year in firearm homicides between 1985 and 1994, an average annual rate of 6.1 firearm homicides per 100,000 people.
From 1995 through 2021, the latest year for which full data is available, firearm homicides claimed about 13,000 lives each year. That is an average annual rate of 4.3 firearm homicides per 100,000 people. [CDC Wonder]
The number of fatal firearm suicides since the Brady Bill’s enactment (1994-2023 partial)
Like homicides, firearm suicides peaked in the lead-up to the Brady Bill. They declined through the end of the 1990s and early 2000s, before beginning to rise again later that decade. From 1995 to 2021, the average annual firearm suicide rate was 6.5 per 100,000 — down from 7.4 in the decade leading up to Brady. Each year, firearm suicides claim an average of 34,000 lives, constituting the bulk of U.S. gun deaths. Provisional data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggests that firearm suicides reached a record high in 2022, with 8.1 deaths per 100,000 people. [CDC Wonder]
Firearms produced for the U.S. market since the Brady Bill’s enactment (1994-2022)
While the Brady Bill added safeguards to the process of buying guns, it did not stop guns from growing more ubiquitous. Since 1994, more than 121.8 million long guns, 136.9 million handguns, and 10.6 million other firearms have been manufactured or imported into the U.S. market. This total accounts for more than 54 percent of all firearms produced for the U.S. market since 1899 and 71 percent of the country’s estimated total guns in circulation.
Firearm production has surged in the years since Brady, even when accounting for population growth. An average of 5.1 million firearms were produced for the American market each year in the decade before Brady’s passage. Since then, an average of 9.3 million firearms have been produced each year. A record 22.5 million new firearms flooded the U.S. market in 2021. [The Trace]
Editor’s note: A previous version of this story partially misstated the proportion of background checks that result in a denial. It is 3 in 200, not 3 in 20.