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Gun Sales Are Surging, But Background Checks Aren’t Keeping Up

Gun sales were so slow earlier this year that in February, The New York Times ran a piece on how some gun manufacturers were looking to rebrand to make up for the “Trump slump.”

But then the pandemic hit. And on Friday, March 13, when President Trump declared a national emergency, the number of background checks went through the roof, according to the FBI system that vets gun buyers.

In March, the FBI received almost 1.5 million requests for background checks, according to data the bureau released to FiveThirtyEight in response to a public records request. On Friday, March 20 alone, 104,084 background check requests were sent to the bureau; according to a slightly different measure that includes checks run by state systems, that day saw the highest daily number of background checks on record.1 In fact, by that broader measure, five of the gun background check system’s 10 busiest days were in March 2020. While March is usually a busy month for background checks, it was off the charts this year.

But the number of background checks didn’t just go up. As you can see in the chart below, as the number of background checks sent to the FBI rose, so did the percentage that were delayed more than three business days — a critical deadline after which federal law allows dealers to legally sell a gun without a completed background check.

This is significant because it means that it may have been easier for guns to get into the hands of people who cannot legally own them.

The danger here isn’t theoretical. Dylann Roof was able to buy the gun he used to kill nine black churchgoers in Charleston, South Carolina, in 2015 because of this loophole. Roof had a record for drug possession that meant he couldn’t legally own a gun, but after the three-day period passed, the gun dealer sold him a gun anyway.

To be sure, these numbers aren’t a perfect portrait of gun sales: They don’t include data from 20 states that process some or all of their background checks themselves rather than through the FBI. And not every background check represents a gun sale — many checks are run when people apply for gun permits, when states check on the status of gun permit holders, or for other purposes. A single background check can also represent multiple gun sales.

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We also don’t know how many background checks from March the FBI never completed. When a background check drags on for 88 days, the bureau stops researching the potential buyer and purges the background check request from its systems to comply with federal regulations. The bureau hasn’t yet released data on purged requests made in March.

We do know that the bureau never completes the overwhelming majority of background checks that take longer than three business days. For instance, 79 percent of such checks were never completed in 2019. This year, it purged over 80 percent of such checks from January and 78 percent from February.

Still, Jurgen Brauer, chief economist at Small Arms Analytics and Forecasting, and other experts agree that the spike in background checks in March represented a real surge in retail gun sales. For instance, Brauer’s consulting firm analysed FBI data and found that retail gun sales drove the surge in March, along with a second surge in June that was likely tied to Black Lives Matter protests. In total, the firm estimated that gun sales rose year-over-year by 85 percent in March and 145 percent in June.

And a team of researchers at the University of California, Davis’s Violence Prevention Research Program compared FBI data on gun background checks to gun violence data compiled by the Gun Violence Archive, finding a nearly 8 percent increase in gun violence over expected levels from March through May 2020. This study hasn’t yet been peer reviewed, but if it’s accurate, that’s 776 additional fatal and nonfatal injuries, not including suicides and accidents.

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This surge in gun sales during the pandemic has meant that an already brittle background check system is getting overloaded, causing massive delays, according to Brauer. He compared background checks to a drainage system that backs up during a big storm. “There’s a massive flow of rainwater, and the systems can’t handle it,” he said.

The FBI, however, disputed that characterization in a statement to FiveThirtyEight.

Holly Morris, a spokesperson for the bureau, said the agency hasn’t found a relationship between the rise in the share of delayed background checks and the increased volume of requests. “The influx in the percentage of delayed transactions and any extended processing times can be​ attributed to a number of variables,” Morris wrote via email, adding that staffing levels for the background check system have remained the same throughout the pandemic.

There are signs that the influx in gun sales might not be slowing anytime soon. The initial spikes in gun sales in March lined up closely with events related to the pandemic, including Feb. 26, when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention first confirmed that the virus was spreading within the U.S. and not just being brought back by travelers, and Trump’s national emergency declaration on March 13. But as the pandemic has worn on, the reasoning driving the spike in gun sales has changed, too. By the time gun sales soared even higher in June, research suggests it was no longer the coronavirus on buyers’ minds but the protests over the police killing of George Floyd.

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Phillip Levine and Robin McKnight of Wellesley College compared the FBI’s state-by-state background check data with data on Google searches for the N-word to see if states with more searches for the racist slur saw a larger increase in gun sales. They found what Levine described as a “modest correlation” in June, suggesting that at least some of those sales were driven by concerns over Black Lives Matter protests.

“As the pandemic settled down, gun sales settled down too, until it got to June,” Levine said in an interview. “In the aftermath of the George Floyd killing, there was another very dramatic spike.”

It’s hard to know how gun sales in the U.S. will continue to progress, as we don’t yet have data for July. The data released to FiveThirtyEight did not include June, but less-detailed data the FBI published online shows that last month the agency ran more background checks than any other month on record. And, of course, sales rose in 2016 in part over fears that Hillary Clinton would take the White House and impose new gun regulations, so with presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden ahead in the polls, another surge in gun sales may not be far behind. Not to mention that another surge in coronavirus cases could again drive a spike in sales like the one we saw in March.

Whatever happens, more gun sales will likely mean more delays — potentially putting guns into the hands of people who can’t legally own one.

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  1. Records cover Nov. 30, 1998 to June 30, 2020.

Joshua Eaton is a freelance investigative reporter.