Last year, the United States saw record numbers of gun sales, and it strained the FBI’s background check process, meaning more background checks were left incomplete. If an FBI background check is delayed by more than three business days, gun dealers can legally sell a firearm without a completed background check.
According to FBI data analyzed by Five Thirty-Eight, the bureau ran 12,761,328 background checks in 2020. That’s 50 percent more than in earlier years. And because of the soaring rates of gun sales, the FBI was also unable to complete 316,000 background checks during the first nine months of last year. Five Thirty-Eight also noted that the total of incomplete background checks for last year is certainly higher than that, as gun sales typically spike in the last three months of the year. In October, November, and December 2020 alone, the FBI opened 3.4 million background checks.
Each year, an increasing number of background checks are never completed. In 2014, the FBI did not complete 2.1 percent of background checks. In 2019, that number rose to 2.5 percent, and in the first nine months of last year, the FBI failed to complete 3.4 percent of background checks.
This means that we can never know how many people were able to purchase a gun last year who should not have. Explaining the incomplete background checks, the FBI told Five Thirty-Eight that the process “depends on the availability of relevant information and records provided by federal, state, local, and tribal agencies” and said it had “reallocated resources to help ensure that it can continue processing background checks efficiently.”
While it was overwhelmed, the background check system also stopped a record number of gun sales, according to FBI records obtained by Everytown for Gun Safety and shared with the AP. More than 300,000 sales were blocked last year — almost double the number denied in 2019. And one in four, or 42 percent, of those sales were denied because the applicant had been convicted of a felony. Sixteen percent of those denied were blocked by state law from purchasing a firearm, and 12 percent were denied because of a record of domestic violence.
Sarah Burd-Sharps, director of research for Everytown, said that despite an increase in denied sales, loopholes in the law still allow people to obtain weapons who shouldn’t. “There’s no question that background checks work, but the system is working overtime to prevent a record number of people with dangerous prohibitors from being able to buy firearms,” Burd-Sharps said in a statement. “The loopholes in the law allow people to avoid the system, even if they just meet online or at a gun show for the first time.”
Stats like these combined with the number of mass shootings in the U.S. have many calling for Congress to take action on gun control. But while the House has passed gun control bills they have stalled in the Senate. The Bipartisan Background Checks Act, which closes loopholes that allow people to bypass background checks, and the Enhanced Background Checks Act, which would extend the time the FBI has to complete a background check from three to 10 business days. President Biden has taken some executive action on guns, including ordering the Justice Department to crack down on “ghost guns” and investing in community violence interventions.