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What Background Checks Data Reveals About Gun Ownership in America

Most states ran fewer firearm background checks last year, but that's only part of the story.

Firearms licensers in states ran nearly 21 million federal firearm background checks on the FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) last year. Just how many checks are processed can fluctuate greatly each month, providing clues on how firearm purchases may be trending in each state.

Total federal firearm background checks dipped slightly in 2014 after climbing for years, marking the first annual decline since 2002. All but eight states recorded year-over-year declines in 2014, with firearm checks in Maryland, Massachusetts and Nebraska all falling by more than a quarter.

Lower tallies last year likely resulted from an unusually high total in 2013, particularly in the months following the school shooting in Newtown, Conn.

While NICS data is often used as a barometer to approximate firearms transactions, checks don’t represent actual numbers of guns changing hands. An individual purchasing multiple firearms at a time only requires a single background check, for example, and states occasionally re-run checks for various reasons.

Comparing more recent data over the first four months of this year suggests about half of states are on pace to exceed 2014 totals. One state, Indiana, has seen a particularly steep increase in firearm checks over the past few months. Lawmakers there have introduced a slew of different bills, from one requiring firearm safety classes for residents wanting licenses to carry handguns to another repealing a ban on sawed-off shotgun possession. 

Some of the largest spikes in background check totals occur when lawmakers debate policy proposals or right before implementation begins on a new law. One of the more notable increases occurred in Maryland in the fall of 2013. Background checks more than tripled the final month before a law requiring new gun owners to submit fingerprints and take safety training courses went into effect.

Other states, though, experienced recent dropoffs in background checks conducted without any major policy changes. Firearm checks reported in Massachusetts, for example, were down 29 percent last year.

Background checks also often jump following well-publicized shootings or national tragedies. The FBI reported a record of nearly 2.8 million checks (see chart) in December 2012, the month the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting took place. Totals also generally peak in November and December each year, coinciding with the holiday shopping season.

While NICS data indicates the number of background checks have climbed over the longer term, surveys suggest firearm ownership has slowly declined. Guns are present in about a third of U.S. households, down from nearly half of households in the late 1970s and early 80s, according to the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago.

State Background Check Data

Data Notes

  • Firearm background checks do not represent numbers of firearms sold. Federal background checks are not required, for example, in private transactions, and multiple firearms may be purchased after a single background check.
  • Some Kentucky permit holders are subject to monthly background checks.
  • North Carolina conducted checks on a large group of existing permit holders in March 2014.
  • In California, a technical issue caused NICS queries to be submitted multiple times in March 2015.
  • Read further NICS information from the FBI
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