Saturday, December 15, 2012

Acquiring a Firearm in America

With gun violence once again hitting the 24 hour a day, seven day a week news cycle, I wanted to write another posting covering the process of acquiring a firearm in the United States and some key statistics about the National Instant Criminal Background Check System.

Let's start here:

This chart shows the number of background checks done by the FBI using the National Instant Criminal Background Check System or NICS for the period between 1998 and 2012 and does not necessarily reflect the number of guns sold (although, since only one background check has to be done for multiple firearms purchases, the number of guns sold could be higher than the number of background checks).  In fact, a study by the Violence Policy Center shows that the percentage of U.S. households that own guns is decreasing at the same time that the number of guns is increasing as shown on this graph:

 A 2006 study published by the Injury Prevention Journal shows that firearm ownership is becoming increasingly concentrated in the hands of fewer and fewer American households with half of all gun owners reporting owning four or more firearms.  Here is a pie chart showing the types of firearms owned by Americans:

Back to NICS.  Over the past decade, the number of background checks requested has risen from 8,454,322 in 2002 to 16,454,951 in 2011, an increase of 94.6 percent during a time when the population in the United States rose by only 8.3 percent.  You will also notice that the total for the first 11 months of 2012 is 353,587 larger than the 12 month total for 2011 and that the total of 2,006,919 for the month of November 2012 sets a new record.  That's one background check in November for every 15 Americans.

For those of you who aren't familiar with NICS, here's a quote from the FBI website:

"The National Instant Criminal Background Check System, or NICS, is all about saving lives and protecting people from harm—by not letting guns and explosives fall into the wrong hands. It also ensures the timely transfer of firearms to eligible gun buyers.

"Mandated by the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act of 1993 and launched by the FBI on November 30, 1998, NICS is used by Federal Firearms Licensees (FFLs) to instantly determine whether a prospective buyer is eligible to buy firearms or explosives. Before ringing up the sale, cashiers call in a check to the FBI or to other designated agencies to ensure that each customer does not have a criminal record or isn’t otherwise ineligible to make a purchase. More than 100 million such checks have been made in the last decade, leading to more than 900,000 denials."

Here is a chart showing the number of NICS background checks by state for 2012:

Kentucky, with an estimated population of 4,369,356 in 2011, has, by a wide margin, the largest per capita number of background checks with a total of 2,329,151 thus far in 2012 and 2,280,832 in 2011 or more than one for every two Kentuckians including under-age children.  In second place, Texas has 1,196,176 background checks thus far in 2012 compared to 1,155,387 in 2011, however, Texas has a far bigger population, standing at 26,403,743 in 2012.

Here is a chart showing the number of NICS background checks for all states since the program began in 1998 by type of gun:

Of the 156,577,260 requests recorded on this sheet, 39,927,656 were for handguns or 25 percent of the total.  Again, you'll notice that Kentucky, a state which comprises only 1.4 percent of America's total population, accounted for 15,118,518 background checks between 1998 and the present, a whopping 9.6 percent of the total.

Here is a listing showing the categories and numbers of Americans who will be denied the privilege of acquiring a firearm by the NICS database:

Notice that there are a total of 1,796,058 Americans who will be denied the right to purchase a firearm because of mental health issues.

Lastly, here is a listing of the number of Americans that have been denied the right to purchase a firearm by NICS and the reason why they were denied:

Notice that the vast majority of denials since 1998 are related to a criminal conviction (58.65 percent of all denials).  Since it appears that mental health issues are often connected to mass shootings, let's focus on the number of denials related to mental health.  Of the 976,225 denials since 1998, only  1.01 percent of refusals were applicants that were denied because of a mental health issue.  Taking the 9,877 mental health denials one step further, out of the 157 million background checks done, only 0.0063 percent were denied because of mental health issues.  Considering that the National Alliance on Mental Health suggests that one in four or approximately 57.7 million Americans will suffer from a mental health disorder in a given year, it would appear that denials related to mental health are vastly under-represented in the NICS database.  Either that or Americans suffering from mental health issues are simply not attempting to acquire firearms, a highly unlikely scenario.

Overall, when one looks at all of the data, it is interesting to note that, of the 157,690,937 background checks done by the FBI, there were only 976,225 denials, an overall denial rate of only 0.62 percent. The overall denial rate for reasons of mental illness is a tiny fraction of one percent, an issue that could well prove to be a problem since mental health professionals are well aware that a substantial portion of Americans will suffer from a debilitating mental illness, including 14.8 million Americans who suffer from depression.  Unfortunately, mental health professionals note that three-quarters of lifetime cases of mental illness begin by the age of 24 and there are often significant time delays between the time that symptoms appear and treatment begins.  It is that period of time that is most dangerous.


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