For many years the November, 2008 record of over 1.5 million National Instant Check System background checks stood. (December, 2008 was a hair lower). In 2011 November set a new record: 1.53 million. Then December set a new recprd: 1.86. Three months in 2012 were over the 2011 records, and every month in 2012 was up year-over-year (gun sales are highly seasonal, so this is a good indicator of a solid and lasting up trend).
Then, in November, NICS checks exceeded 2 million for the first time. November and December are usually the peak months, but December 2012 was absolutely unprecedented: up over 900,000 guns over December 2011’s checks (which, you may recall, was a record that stood for nearly a year: 1,862,327). The new record: 2,783,765.
Due to the complete failure of the WordPress 3.5 media browser (hot tip: if you use WP do not install 3.5), we don’t have an image for you, but we do have this link to the 1998-2012 monthly totals at FBI.gov. And here is a link to the by-state crosstabs for every month since the NICS opened in 1998.
Now, there is not a one-to-one relationship between NICS checks and gun sales for several reasons. Some 22 states’ pistol permits exempt the holder from NICS, so guns those licensees buy don’t go through NICS. Some checks don’t yield a completed sale. Some NICS checks are done to determine eligibility for a gun license. And some buyers buy multiple weapons at once. So it’s a problematical data set. But it’s the best statistical base we have for gun sales.
The FBI’s page on the NICS has the history of the system and links to its statutory underpinnings. One of the most interesting .pdfs enumerates who (by category, not individual names) is actually on the NICS list of prohibited persons. Of some 330 million American residents, only 8.3 million make the list, and of those, the vast majority are criminal aliens, over 5.3 million of them. The next largest category is those who have had a mental health adjudication — this number has soared to 1.8 million since the VA began adding counseling-seeking vets to the list.
While we think of this system as the one that ensure felons don’t get guns, only 727,255 felons are on the list (but “felon” is a surprisingly slippery concept; Federal prosecutors in North Carolina framed literally hundreds of misdemeanor violators as felons-in-possession, and it’s been very difficult to get them out of Club Fed, even with an appeals court ruling). The Lautenberg Amendment sweeps up another 90,000 misdemeanor domestic bullies and 4,100 unlucky guys who have a restraining order in effect (some of them are violent and some are victims of the latest trend in no-prisoners divorce lawyering).
But even though the numbers of the prohibited persons list are swollen by illegal aliens and mental cases, those represent relatively few of the people who are denied by NICS. Over half of the denials are felons, and the next largest group is domestic violence convicts.
There are not many people who are impeded from buying by the system. All in all, 19,592,303 NICS checks were consummated during calendar 2012.
It would have been an even larger figure, if two constraints had not been in place. First, every merchant was constrained by tight inventory. Everywhere shelves were stripped to the slatwall by unprecedented demand. The second constraint has been the poor performance of telephone NICS under load. FFLs tell us that the online e-NICS system has fared better, and states that have their own call lines, like Colorado and New Hampshire, have had more delays and downtime than the Federal line.
Sales are still continuing hot in January, 2012, but are constrained by inventory. Over the holidays both NICS and some state hotlines were very, very slow due to a bad conjunction of gun shops working more holiday-season hours that government workers, and continued high volume. The number is likely to retreat from December’s world record, just because there aren’t 3 million guns out there to buy any more (as everyone trying to buy an AR or AK is learning.