Firearm sales skyrocket; Background checks bog down

A sharp increase in firearms sales locally, and across the nation, has resulted in a slowdown of background check processing through the FBI's NICS.

As the country continues to battle against the spread of COVID-19, and citizens face the resulting constraints - from government mandated social distancing measures to retailer-mandated limits on purchase - citizens throughout Georgia and across the country have flocked in record-setting numbers to pawn shops, sporting good outlets and gun stores for what is often a first-time gun purchase.

Adam Tullis, owner of Toccoa’s Austin Pawn Shop, told ConnectLocal that gun and ammunition sales in the past two weeks have far exceeded normal figures. Likewise, MTC Pawn has seen a sizable increase in firearm sales, according to co-owner Michael Mayo.

“It’s been insane, we’re selling five times that amount right now. Our staff is pushed to the limits. There are more firearms being sold right now probably than ever before” Jay Wallace, owner of Adventure Outdoors in Smyrna, Georgia, told Time Magazine in early March. “This is like a Rod Serling Twilight Zone episode,” he added, saying his his store was selling more than five times the amount of typical ammunition sales at the store.

Charlotte, NC, Hyatt Guns owner Larry Hyatt stated to the media on Monday that the past three days were “as close to panic buying” as he had ever seen, and, the largest online retailer of guns and ammunition, told USA Today that there had been a 68 percent increase in sales between late February and early March.

“Our nation has seen an uptick in firearm and ammunition sales whenever people feel threatened,” stated the NRA in a recent press release regarding COVID-19. “We're seeing it now because Americans know that, during times like these, first responder resources may be limited, and their safety is ultimately in their own hands.”

Although it is normal for firearm sales to tick upwards during an election year, and in fact, gun sales have been trending upward since last November's election day and a proliferation of gun-control and red flag legislation, there was an almost across-the-board spike in sales in late February and early March as COVID-19 was declared a pandemic. Between Feb. 23 and March 4, firearm sales climbed nearly 70 percent over the previous 11 day, according to figures released by the Associated Press.

Hand-in-hand with the retailer benefit of increased sales, however, have come complications and delays in the processing of background checks as the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) struggles to keep up with the increased demand.

Although not all firearm sales in Georgia require a purchaser to submit to a background check, the magnitude of the increase in firearms sales has resulted in a 300 percent jump in the average number of monthly background checks, with the FBI processed three times the volume of firearm background checks on March 16 compared with the same day in 2019, according to FBI sources.

The sharp increase in the number of background checks being processed account for the slowdowns and discrepancies within NICS, but there are concerns expressed by some that the delays, combined with the fact that many jurisdiction have suspended issuance of Georgia Weapons Carry Licenses, are a violation of Second Amendment rights.

Andrew Clyde, owner of Clyde Armory in Athens, said that laws governing background checks place a limit on how long NICS has to provide the results of an individuals background check. If the individuals background check is not immediately cleared, or denied, it is put in “delayed” status, and according to the law, after three business days, if a conclusive clearance or denial is not provided by NICS, the retailer is allowed to complete the transaction.

In normal cases, three business days means, at most, five days, Clyde said. However, for the past week, licensed firearms retailers throughout Georgia, and the country have been seeing a significant increase of then number of background checks that are put in “delayed” status.

“I would say that 75 percent of the time now, it is coming back as “delayed,” Clyde said on Wednesday, March 25. “For a few days, we weren’t seeing any ‘proceeds’ at all, now we are seeing a small smattering of ‘proceeds. Our delayed status is three to four times what it normally is.”

“For several days, every background check was being put in “delayed” status, even a couple that I know for a fact should have come back immediately as approved,” Mayo told ConnectLocal on Thursday. “We’ve been getting back some approvals, and some denied checks now, but the ones that do come back as delayed, we are seeing a Brady Transfer Date – the day we can legally transfer the gun to the purchaser without having received a definitive “proceed” or “denied” set on April 15 at the earliest, instead of three to five days out.”

“We have even had a background check come back “delayed” (status) from NICS and the Brady Transfer Day they give is beyond 30 days out,” Clyde said. "We did one background check on the 17th of March, and the Brady Transfer Date given by NICS was April 21. A NICS background check is only good for 30 days, so by April 21, it would have expired and we would have had to start all over, and at that point, it’s ‘when will this individual ever get his gun?’ That is wrong and has to be challenged.”

The National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF) sent a message to all members stating “According to NICS, there are delays in the system due to an astronomical volume of transactions over the last several days. While much of the NICS System is automated and yields an immediate “proceed” or “deny” determination, transactions that result in a delayed status require the work of NICS examiners to investigate whether the transaction should be approved. With daily volumes roughly double that of last year, the NICS team is unable to begin investigations on all delays within three business days, creating a backlog in the delayed checks.”

State and local offices and agencies that reduce employees or institute a temporary closure can also negatively impact the length of time it takes to complete a background check, NSSF stated.

A letter sent to all Georgia licensed firearms sellers, and posted on the NICS website, states “As the FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) Section works through the impact of the COVID-19 operationally, we are working to maintain our services. We are aware that states may be considering options to protect the health and safety of their employees, which may include a reduction in office availability or even closure to some offices. Should a state choose to limit days of operation by completely closing state offices one or more days a week or even indefinitely, this could potentially impact the Brady Transfer Date (BTD) by changing the time in which an FFL can legally transfer a firearm in a delayed status. “

“When state offices are closed, it does not constitute a “business day” for purposes of calculating the “three business days” period before an FFL (licensed firearms seller) may transfer a firearm to a non-licensee as mandated by the Brady Act,” stated the NSSF release.

Yesterday, March 26, Mayo and Tullis both said that they are starting to see the percentage of background checks coming back as ‘delayed’ begin to normalize, with rates of ‘proceed’ and ‘denied’ status checks returning to close-to-normal levels. The Brady Transfer Date coming back with any ‘delayed’ status checks, however, is still showing April 15 or later.

According to NICS statistics, there were more than 2 million background checks completed each month in late 2019 - a trend that has continued in the first two months of 2020. March statistics will not be released until sometime in April. ConnectLocal will update this story when NICS statistics are updated with March numbers.

NCIS Firearms Background Checks - State of Georgia

Jan. 2020 - 52,557

Feb. 2020 - 54,250

2020 Total (Through Feb. 29) - 106,807

Jan. 2019 - 44,839

Feb. 2019 - 48,900

March 2019 - 56,804

Total 2019 - 539,113

Jan. 2018 - 45,590

Feb. 2018 - 57,838

March 2018 - 67,791

Total 2018 - 549.532

Jan. 2017 - 44,615

Feb. 2017 - 53,177

March 2017 - 57,235

Total 2017 - 541,655

jan. 2016 - 62,707

Feb. 2016 - 66,777

March 2016 - 55,396

Total 2016 - 612,985


Brady Act Requirements

Mandated by the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act (Brady Act) of 1993, the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) was established for Federal Firearms Licensees (FFLs) to contact for information to be supplied immediately on whether the transfer of a firearm would be in violation of Section 922 (g) or (n) of Title 18, United States Code, or state law.

When a person tries to buy a firearm, the seller, known as a Federal Firearms Licensee (FFL), contacts NICS electronically or by phone. The prospective buyer fills out the ATF form, and the FFL relays that information to the NICS. The NICS staff performs a background check on the buyer. That background check verifies the buyer does not have a criminal record or isn't otherwise ineligible to purchase or own a firearm. If the NICS cannot complete the background check and reach a verdict in three business days, the firearm is allowed to be sold.

Georgia law provides that all transfers or purchases of firearms conducted by an importer, manufacturer or dealer licensed pursuant to federal or Georgia law are subject to NICS.

Georgia law also requires the Georgia Crime Information Center to provide to NICS all necessary criminal history information and wanted person records, and information concerning persons who have been involuntarily hospitalized, in order to complete a NICS check.

State administrative regulations also now recognize that federal law requires federal firearms licensees to contact NICS before transferring a firearm.

Federal law does not require dealers to conduct a background check if a firearm purchaser presents a state permit to purchase or possess firearms that meets certain conditions. As a result, Georgia Weapons Carry License holders in Georgia are exempt from the federal background check requirement.

Georgia does not require private sellers (sellers who are not licensed dealers) to initiate a background check when transferring a firearm.

When a person tries to buy a firearm, the seller, known as a Federal Firearms Licensee (FFL), contacts NICS electronically or by phone. The prospective buyer fills out the ATF form, and the FFL relays that information to the NICS. The NICS staff performs a background check on the buyer. That background check verifies the buyer does not have a criminal record or isn't otherwise ineligible to purchase or own a firearm. Since launching in 1998, more than 300 million checks have been done, leading to more than 1.5 million denials.


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