by Matt Rosenberg 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.
|% change – ‘99-’12||288%||66.5%||70.7%||28.2%||114.4%|