Collaboration in Civic Spheres

WA far outpaces U.S. in gun buy background checks

by January 3rd, 2013

New federal data tied to one prominent indicator suggests Washington state is far outpacing neighboring states plus California and the United States in firearms purchases from 1999 through 2012. That’s the number of background checks submitted from federal firearms licensees to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) on behalf of unlicensed buyers, under the federal Brady law. The total from Washington has grown from 133,674 in 1999 to 519,209 in 2012, or 288 percent versus 114 percent nationwide, 66 percent in Oregon, 70 percent in Idaho and 28 percent in California. The data come from updated annual state-by-state and nationwide NICS summaries issued this week by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. (See chart, below).

The near-tripling of background checks on new buyers of guns in Washington comes during a continuing and sharp drop in the state’s rate of murder and violent crime. As we recently reported, the murder rate in Washington in 2010 reached a 45-year low and the violent crime rate a 37-year low. The state’s murder rate stayed essentially flat in 2011 and the violent crime rate dropped further.

Context is important in understanding the NICS data. A background check does not necessarily imply that a purchase subsequently occurs, although very few of the checks result in anything other than approval of the applications by the previously unlicensed buyers. Reasons for denials include previous criminal convictions, and adjudication of the prospective buyer as a mental health risk.

At the same time though, many more gun purchases occur than are reflected in the NICS totals. This is because background checks are not required for buyers of guns who are already licensed to own, or for unlicensed buyers of rifles and shotguns who reside in states other than the licensed seller. In addition, the NICS background check system does not apply to purchases at gun shows, where sellers are typically not classified as operating a federally-licensed firearms business.

More than 160 million background checks have been run under NICS from November of 1998 through 2012, according to the FBI. But the total number of firearms owned by civilians in the U.S. was last estimated at 310 million in 2009, according to a recent report from the Congressional Research Service.

News reports on the national NICS data for 2012 have emphasized a robust 39 percent bump in background checks in December of that year compared to the same period in 2011, and have attributed much of that to anticipation of new gun control laws in the wake of the tragic mass killings of 26 young school children and adults December 14 in Newtown, Conn. However the growth in NICS background checks has been increasing markedly since 2007. That was the year of the mass shooting at Virginia Tech.

Gun buy background check via NICS – Source: FBI
1999 133,674 160,358 79,914 883,144 9,138,123
2000 134,255 135,336 77,138 794,506 8,543,037
2001 161,380 141,295 75,400 854,569 8,910,191
2002 193,439 137,513 74,062 684,390 8,454,322
2003 213,916 142,960 76,669 524,431 8,481,588
2004 203,432 149,688 75,553 548,843 8,687,671
2005 219,559 158,045 80,343 611,022 8,952,945
2006 255,387 163,705 91,018 617,820 10,036,933
2007 276,156 162,629 93,897 855,943 11,177,335
2008 316,589 179,887 100,457 780,398 12,709,023
2009 336,732 185,043 99,243 788,164 14,033,824
2010 335,342 184,835 92,031 816,399 14,409,616
2011 394,410 209,781 106,616 905,701 16,454,951
2012 519,209 267,041 136,482 1,132,603 19,592,303
% change – ’99-’12 288% 66.5% 70.7% 28.2% 114.4%

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One Response to “WA far outpaces U.S. in gun buy background checks”

  1. Ash says:

    Good post, but a couple of errors.

    “background checks are not required for buyers of guns who are already licensed to own”.

    This is incorrect. There is no ‘license to own’ guns in WA, and all gun purchases from an FFL in WA require a background check.

    “In addition, the NICS background check system does not apply to purchases at gun shows, where sellers are typically not classified as operating a federally-licensed firearms business.”

    Although true, the majority of dealers at the largest WA gun show (Washington Arms Collectors, held monthly in Puyallup) are federally licensed firearm dealers who are obliged to perform background checks. The non-FFL tables are a far smaller segment. Most gun buyers attending the Puyallup gun show will complain that the majority of tables are selling plush pillows, beef jerky and dream catchers rather than firearms.

    There are smaller rural gun shows with non-FFL tables, but in general, they have a limited number and selection of firearms for sale and are selling to a much smaller rural market. I doubt anyone in Seattle is going to make a six hour round trip to rural WA just for a gun show.

    WA has a fairly weak gun show circuit compared to Oregon and California. Look at and you will find massive gun shows in downtown San Francisco every month. You won’t find anything comparable in Seattle. Hence for WA, the NICS numbers are higher because the majority of transactions are taking place at FFL dealers.