NICS Checks Reveal Americans’ Changing Gun Purchasing Preferences

Image via FBI.gov.

The FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System, or NICS for short, reveals all sorts of data.  Most folks just look at the grand total number each month or year and compare that to the previous year’s data for an idea of sales trends. But the data has a much bigger story to tell.

Most people assume that each NICS check represents a firearm transfer. In the past, the overwhelming majority did indeed represent transfers. However, today, most NICS checks are done for license checks and re-checks.

For instance, did you know that Illinois has the most NICS checks of any state so far in 2019? More than even Texas. Far more.

Image by Boch from FBI data.

Does that mean Land o’ Lincoln gun owners like me have bought more guns than our brothers and sisters in the Lone Star State? Oh, heck no. Illinois has so many NICS checks because the Illinois State Police just love to check and re-check Firearm Owner Identification cardholders along with concealed carry license holders. Over and over again.

Changing buying habits

Looking at elsewhere in the NICS data, we find “Monthly by state and purpose” file information. That’s where you can see the purpose of the NICS checks that are run. I’ve cropped the image to remove trivial categories like pawns, rentals, private sales and returns.

From 2019…

Image by Boch from FBI data.

As you can see, Texas has run just shy of 700,000 firearms purchase checks, while Land of Lincoln residents have bought a mere 276,000 guns so far in 2019. And, as you can see, Illinois does ten times as many NICS rechecks on FOID and CCW holders as it does for new gun purchases.

Looking back in time, it’s interesting to look at the sea change in the buying patterns of gun owners. Polls show that two-thirds of self-admitted gun owners own one firearm for personal defense.

Almost twenty years ago, long guns outsold handguns by a 2:1 margin. Here is data from 1999…

Image by Boch from FBI data.

Today, handgun sales rule the roost.

Image by Boch from FBI data.

The sea change happened during Barack Obama’s presidency, the greatest gun salesman in the history of the world ever. More and more Americans decided they wanted some ballistic capability for personal protection purposes, so they bought handguns. And a lot of them.

You too can access all these many reports at the FBI’s NICS page. Head over there and poke around. They have information there on interesting things like the top ten days and weeks for NICS checks, as well as data denials and more.

 

comments

  1. avatar Ranger Rick says:

    Has the Lincoln States’s abundance of NIC’s in any way lead to a reduction of murders in Chiraq?

    1. avatar Someone says:

      That was never the goal. Disarmament of the regular, non-criminal populace is.

      “Illinois has so many NICS checks because the Illinois State Police just love to check and re-check Firearm Owner Identification cardholders along with concealed carry license holders. Over and over again.”
      Like, every day. For CCL holders, twice a day!

      1. avatar grumpster says:

        Yeah and all that checking did not stop the killer at Henry Pratt workplace Aurora Illinois. His FOID was revoked but they just sent a letter to his last known address.

        1. avatar Bubba Rope says:

          WTF Kentucky? You have 1/5 of it all!

      2. avatar Bill Bill says:

        They should be taken to court over that.

      3. avatar Geoff "I'm getting too old for this shit" PR says:

        “…the Illinois State Police just love to check and re-check Firearm Owner Identification cardholders…”

        It’s a ‘free’ and easy bust for them. That ‘fishing expedition’ obviously pays off.

        Nice to see Florida rarely if ever re-checks. (That will likely change now.) I’ve seen musings of mine pop up later on in anti-gun writing and websites, like putting ARs on the NFA.

        They may wish to re-consider the NFA for semi-autos, we can likely force them to re-open the MG registry if they go that route. If they wanna call them automatic, they are gonna be actual select-fire…

  2. avatar Karl says:

    In Iowa if you have a permit to purchase or a permit to carry you do not do a NICS check on firearms transfers. Anywhere else?

    1. avatar Rammerjammer says:

      Nebraska is the same way

      1. avatar The Crimson Pirate says:

        Texas as well, IIRC

        1. avatar Cruzo1981 says:

          Well here in Texas I’ve had a CHL for years now and the dealers always do a NICS anyhow. I don’t even take out the CHL anymore, they ask for your DL…

        2. avatar AJ says:

          ??…Are you in Austin..?!?

          In Houston… I have not been checked since I got my CHL.. my DL is checked when I fill out the 4473.. but they dont call our rich Uncle (@ATF) and make me wait..

        3. avatar Magnum says:

          I lived in Austin for 12 years and no dealer has never required more than my CHL for a purchase.

        4. avatar 1 With A Bullet says:

          Cruzo, you gotta find another dealer. NO dealer I’ve dealt with has done a NICS check on any of my purchases since I’ve had a CHL/LTC. I imagine that’s why Texas numbers are so low in the report.

          Or maybe you just look sketchy as…

    2. avatar Dukeisok says:

      North Carolina is same

      1. avatar J Star says:

        Yeah, that’s why our NC numbers look like rookie numbers. Anybody with a CHP in NC doesn’t get a NICs check when purchasing a firearm.

        1. avatar ATTAGReader says:

          Except at Dunham’s just a year ago they still went through an entire NICS check in spite of my NCCHP. Company policy. And it was one of those botched checks so I had to go through the 3 day holding period which stretched to a week because of work schedule. I suspect that all the chain stores are the same.

        2. avatar James Campbell says:

          “Except at Dunham’s just a year ago they still went through an entire NICS check in spite of my NCCHP. Company policy. And it was one of those botched checks so I had to go through the 3 day holding period which stretched to a week because of work schedule. I suspect that all the chain stores are the same.”

          Sounds like it’s time to use a different “Company” for purchases.
          We have GrabAGun here in Coppell, Texas. They ALWAYS run you thru the system, and “ignore” the 3 day rule, you wait until the system clears you (can be weeks).
          What has two thumbs and “ignores” GrabAGun, even when they are 5 minutes away, and have the best price? This guy! “Thumbs up”

        3. avatar Morgan Le fay says:

          I’ve had my CCW in NC for quite some time and every time for long gun or handgun purchases, they still make me fill out the paperwork and run a check. All your CCW does for you here is allow you to purchase handguns without a permit.

    3. avatar Old Guy in Montana says:

      Interesting data, thank you for bringing it to our attention.

      Thankfully, in Montana, we do not have to obtain “permission to purchase” from presumptuous, faceless, non-elected autocrats. Our CWP allows FFL’s to transfer w/o running a NICS each time.

      It’s sad that so many U.S. citizens (and LAPR’s) live under oppressive State regimes.

      1. avatar Weapon Of War says:

        Don’t worry, you’ll join the rest of us. Your Governor is quite the little shill.

        1. avatar Old Guy in Montana says:

          Fortunately, Montana has term limits and that weasley SOB is out next year. Our Legislature is still Conservative majority. Unfortunately, our largest cities are increasingly “Progressive”. The balance is slowly swinging towards the totalitarianism of the Democrats.

    4. avatar NJ2AZ says:

      No check if you have a permit on AZ. It’s the main reason I still renew mine even though we don’t need them anymore

      1. avatar Mark says:

        Exactly.
        It’s not quite “Flash, Ca$h and Dash”, but close enough to make it worth the $43 every five years.

      2. avatar Rusty - Molon Labe - Chains says:

        Georgia does not require NICS if you have WCL (Weapons Carrry License which is concealed and open carry of pistol or long gun or knife longer than 12 inch), so the only gun I can recall having been through NICS in the last twenty plus years was a 10/22 from Dicks that I didn’t realize he was running NICS on. When I asked him what he was doing he told me finishing up the NICS….hacked me off so bad I haven’t been in any Dick’s in a dozen years. Screw their company policy, I don’t do any business with anyone who insists on it.

    5. avatar MADDMAXX says:

      Fl does not require a permit to purchase, CCL holders still must do the NICS thing but no wait as soon as the check clears you take your gun home whether it’s a long gun OR a handgun… Possession of a PERMIT does not mean that you are perpetually “clean” stuff happens and things change…

    6. avatar painlessbob says:

      Montana is the same way: CWP holders do not need a NICS check to transfer, just the 4473.

    7. avatar Ample_Arms says:

      Utah is the same. An active, current UT CFP is an exemption to NICS. FFL holders can even verify them online. $7.50 state fee per background check *or* unlimited free checks with a $50/5 year CFP … pays for itself quickly!

    8. avatar Proud Gun Owner says:

      Same with Idaho. With my Concealed Weapons Permit – NO BGC!

    9. avatar Benjamin says:

      In Virginia we do not have gun owner permits or gun registration. Private transfers are legal without asking anyone else. We do have required NICS checks for purchase from dealers; the check is done by the state police who check their local records as well as the NICS database. Open carry is legal without a permit, but concealed carry still requires a CCW permit.

    10. avatar ROBERT A BOYD says:

      It is not up to the state whether a carry permit takes the place of a NIC’s check it is whether the ATF accepts your states carry permit as an alternative, for instance , MI is now accepted, IN. is not

    11. avatar Stephen Titus says:

      All you need is a CCL in Kansas.

    12. avatar David F says:

      Illinois law says you are supposed to make the call, penalty – NOTHING.
      Law with no consequences is the same a sears catalog in the outhouse.

    13. avatar Old Gregg says:

      In Louisiana there is no NICS check if you have a CHP.

  3. avatar daveinwyo says:

    I guess I’m bucking the trend.
    Under odipschiff I bought hand guns.
    Under Trump I’ve been buying long guns.
    Good news is I have a good selection of both.
    Bad news is I don’t have a big enough selection of both.
    And of course, I always need more ammo.

  4. avatar Lawbob says:

    Texas is the same

    No nics w LTC

    And there are a lot of LTCs out there

  5. avatar jwm says:

    The nation hears a constant litany of ‘gun violence’ and horror stories of killings from the msm and its dem allies. In trying to push a false narrative they simply have ramped up the unease in the muggles so naturally the muggles buy guns to protect themselves.

    Our best ally is the loony left.

    1. avatar Geoff "Now in common use, suckers!" PR says:

      If the Leftists hadn’t made such a big deal over semi-autos in the first place (the 90’s AWB ), ARs would have been, and remained, a tiny subset of all semi-autos.

      {Channeling the late, *great*, John Belushi}

      “But, nooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo!”

      They are now *firmly* in “common use” (Thanks, Mr. Heller and McDonald!)…

  6. avatar Totmacher says:

    These numbers are basically worthless as the LTC/CCW variable is just way to overwhelming. As a Kitchen Counter FFL in Texas 80% of my transfers go without a NICS check due to purchasers having a License to Carry. A good trend would be to track the ratio of NICS checks and LTC issues. Then try to proportionally scale purchases based on the correlation.

    With everything going on in our broken world, more and more people are turning to LTC/CCW’s. So I would expect NICS checks to plateau while gun purchases rise.

  7. avatar Defens says:

    Although not likely an overwhelming proportion, I’d be curious to know how many of those “handgun” checks are actually for abbreviated AR-15s with pistol braces. Those weren’t even a thing back when long guns outnumbered pistols.

    1. avatar Squiggy81 says:

      My thoughts also. With the SBA3/SBA4, people like me who otherwise wouldn’t be very interested in an AR type pistol are now very interested. On the other hand, a good portion of those buyers will just buy an upper and not a complete firearm, so it’s hard to guess on numbers. In the end, I’m happy that hard numbers for items like these are not available. The less big brother knows, the better.

      1. avatar G. W. says:

        WELL SAID.

  8. avatar Nate in CA says:

    So who gets paid when IL runs a NCIS check on someone, “just because”? Are the checks provided by the Feds free of charge? Or is someone running checks to rack up charges for another fund accumulated by tax dollars?

  9. avatar BobS says:

    TL;DR: Where can we get the data?

    The FBI CJIS provides NICS statistics as PDF pages for download – exactly as embedded in this piece. I use a PDF to XLS converter to convert the printable pages into Excel-format spreadsheets, which I then import into Google Sheets for simple visualizations or extract into a S3 bucket for deeper analytics.

    But (1) it’s tedious to handle large reports one page at a time (e.g. NICS Firearm Checks: Month/Year by State/Type is 2MB with 251 pages) and (2) even simple relationships (e.g. row and column summaries) are lost. This means a huge amount of manual effort to clean the spreadsheets before the contents are usable for even the simplest manipulation. I expect every blogger who wants to (e.g.) show a YoY volume comparison goes through the same effort with every month’s new data.

    Those PDFs are clearly output from a spreadsheet.
    With easier access to that spreadsheet we could much more easily explore the data.

    The spreadsheet clearly extracts and reports data from a database.
    With access to that underlying database, we could explore the data in new ways, and likely discover new insights that are obscured by the limitations of the current reports. I work every day with “big data” systems that support the work of people with job titles like “Data Scientist”, and you’d be surprised what they and their “Statistician” brethren can glean from a pile of numbers. These NICS reports represent a relatively small pile of numbers by modern standards, but this current printable summarized representation is a huge barrier to understanding what the data could be telling us.

    I have tried to find a contact at NICS or CJIS or FBI or GPO to request NICS data in machine-readable form. Thus far I’ve been unsuccessful.

    1. avatar Aging Disgracefully says:

      There are Python tools to grab those tables from the PDFs. For instance Camelot came out just the other day.

      1. avatar BobS says:

        Yes, that’s how to solve part of the cumbersomeness problem.

        But they still require a lot of manual cleanup, the process still loses relationships, and the resulting spreadsheets still yield little more than the original reports.

    2. avatar BobS says:

      For examples of rudimentary tools with access to the entire unformatted corpus of data on a topic, see
      – the Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR)‘s Crime Data Explorer (CDE)
      – the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)‘s various Data & Statistics
      – the Census Bureau‘s Data Explorer
      – the National Weather Service‘s GIS Portal

      The next level is to have live access (not downloads) to the underlying data so an analytic tool can query unrelated sources as if they had originally been intended to work together, to consider questions such as (1) Is there really any relationship between weather and crime, and in which specific neighborhoods? (2) Is there really any deterrent effect on crime from more people lawfully armed in public?

    3. avatar Klaus Von Schmitto says:

      BobS – I’m also a professional in the field (a data/business intelligence architect) and I’ve tried the same. I’d love to have that data in it’s raw form. A JSON dump would be awesome.

      I’ve had great success with Florida public data (like FWC license data to see trends in hunting/fishing licenses bumped against county by county, year over year population growth) but’s that’s likely due to our Sunshine law. For a government agency, the FWC response is unbelievable. Literally a 4-5 day turn around from request to receiving an SFTP drop with your data. Surely the Feds are bound to hand over our data as well but I haven’t had any luck yet.

  10. avatar Baldwin says:

    Everybody here is bragging that they have “permits” and don’t have to go through NCIS. Well, you had to get “permission” (the permit) to exercise your rights, didn’t you. Not as free as you were thinking, now are you?

    Am I alone in being pissed off about this?

    1. avatar Aging Disgracefully says:

      I think essentially they are making more of a numbers argument. Take NC where I live. You get one NIC check for your CCL and then at most places no background check for each gun purchase. So suppose you guy 5 guns during one CCL period. That means that where there would have been 5 NICs checks without the CCL now there is 1.

      1. avatar Baldwin says:

        I hear ya. But I’m all about how we have been infringed for so long that infringement is widely accepted as the norm. I will never accept any of it. I am forced to play along to get along, but I will never take my eyes off the end game, a full and complete RKBA!

    2. avatar Sam Hill says:

      No you are not alone. Not only does having to go thru bs to get the license, then add injury to insult, had to pay for it. I do not understand why the public keeps electing people who can not pass a third grade comprehensive reading test and the swear hand on bible oath to obey, uphold and defend a document they can’t read or understand. Grass won’t grow where I spit for a couple years just thinking about this. You made a great post, thank you

  11. avatar Katy says:

    CHL factors aside, I’m surprised at the lack of commentary on overall sales. The sense I get from the media is that guns are being sold by the bushel, but reality appears to be an increase of roughly 225k (ignoring the other and multiple categories). That’s an increase of just under 3% after 20 years.

    I guess that’s why the narrative of “nobody is buying guns” or “too many guns sold” varies depending on the story?

  12. avatar Hody Snitch says:

    Come on John. Why do you have a springfield crap gun in the photo? You’re from Illinois for God’s sake. Did you forgive them? Are they misunderstood like the ISRA would have us believe?

    1. avatar former water walker says:

      Boch was GTG with the Hellthing from neverSpringfield. Dunno about the numbers on NICS #’s. I know ILLinois is awash in gats…

      1. avatar Hody Snitch says:

        I guess John is like the nba is with china. Going with the dough.

  13. avatar Aging Disgracefully says:

    Remember that a lot of the pistols are AR pistols.

  14. avatar MarkPA says:

    How much do these permit rechecks cost the taxpayers?

    Nothing is completely free; albeit an electronic transaction comes as close as possible. In my personal case I have a very peculiar name so my NICS checks go through immediately; never enough delay for me to suspect that someone is taking a manual look at my identity relative to the databases.

    Yet, we know from plenty of anecdotal information that lots of folks have a similar-enough name (e.g., Smyth is similar to Smith) that these cases need to be manually checked for plausibility. These are the cases that cost the FBI real money.

    We the People might be content to pay the taxes to cover a purchase or a CWP application. Suppose it’s $10 for an average check that requires manual intervention. (Purely a guess.) If 1/10’th of NICS checks require manual intervention then the average check costs $1 for manual intervention.

    Illinois checks every FOID holder every day of the year (a few holidays excluded). And, it checks every CWP every day; so CWP holders get checked twice a day. Logically, the FBI is paying $1/check/day (given my guessed assumptions) for all these FOID checks and $ for the CWP checks. Those of us in the other 49 states and DC ought to be asking whether we are getting our money’s worth.

    I can understand a state policy of making an annual or quarterly re-check of FOID/CWP holders. Such occasional checks shouldn’t cost much in consideration of the peace-of-mind the voters in such states might attribute to the re-checks. However, daily re-checks (double-daily re-checks) seem an abuse of federal taxpayers.

    Should we consider pushing the President – or Congress if necessary – to limit state permit re-checks to an average of 4/year? (I could understand doing a monthly or weekly re-check on permit holders who have accumulated a rap-sheet of misdemeanors. These few are far more apt to become prohibited-persons on a felony, domestic violence or 2-year misdemeanor so it might be worth-while to re-check them on a more frequent schedule.)

    I make this proposal NOT with the expectation of saving a significant amount of money or some over-riding principle based on the 2A. Instead, I see this as an opportunity for we the PotG to make an issue over abuse of the nation’s gun-control enforcement resources – of which, Illinois is a most deserving target.

    Voters who might notice the debate over such a policy might begin to question the efficacy and economy of gun-control in general when they learn of waste such as that imposed by Illinois.

    1. avatar Geoff "I'm getting too old for this shit" PR says:

      “How much do these permit rechecks cost the taxpayers?”

      In the case of Ill, that’s a damn good question the citizens there should be loudly asking.

      {Paging John Boch. Mr. Boch to the ‘Guns save life’ courtesy phone, please…}

      It’s apparent it’s a ‘fishing expedition’ designed to harass the law-abiding gun owners, because it’s someone’s job each day to check that report for discrepancies.

      I like your idea of limiting them to a set number annually (like a maximum of *one*), since presumption of innocence is the way things are supposed to working when it comes to civil rights…

  15. avatar Jake Dorsey says:

    Can I just ask here, because I’m not seeing it addressed …

    What the hell is going on in Kentucky? Its permit checks and rechecks are OFF THE CHARTS.

    Not even Illinois comes close. What’s the story there?

    1. avatar Jake Dorsey says:

      Edit: its initial checks are much higher; rechecks I see are far secondary to Illinois. My bad.

    2. avatar Isaac says:

      Just guessing but we check our CCDWs every month. That is probably why it is so high.

      1. avatar Jake Dorsey says:

        Must be every single eligible person in the state has one. Jeez. I mean, cool that there’s so many permit holders, but a lot of those are initial permits.

  16. avatar TruthTellers says:

    Handguns are easy to store, generally the least expensive, and come in a variety of sizes and calibers that make buying, owning, and shooting many a worthwhile experience. Rifles… meh, about all you need is a few AR’s, an AK, a .22, a PCC in 9mm and 10mm, lever actions in revolver magnum chamberings, and a couple bolt actions.

    1. avatar Big Bill says:

      Shotguns.
      You forgot shotguns.

  17. avatar Peter says:

    Texas, like many other states, does not require a NICS check if you have a state concealed carry permit, so there’s that.

  18. avatar BatPenguin says:

    I live in SOUTHERN ILLINOIS (lament the fact Chicago is in my state) I am a CCL holder and of course I have an unconstitutional FOID card. I want to know why I am being consistantly rechecked? At some point I have to think they are crossing the line.

    1. avatar BatPenguin says:

      This is a major reason I am moving to Missouri, also lower taxes.

  19. avatar Mark H says:

    Under Federal Law, one is exempt from the NICS check if one has a CCW, permit, or other liscense which required a NICS check, so long as the permit is good for no longer than 5 years. Not all checks go through the feds either. Some states do it. There is no fee for the NICS check, so if one lives in a state with a fee, it’s because it’s going through a state agency instead.

    1. avatar Bob says:

      Some states CCW permits allow that the FFL does not have to call NCIS but the form has to be filled out and retained with the CCW permit info. Not all state CCW permits have the required procedure to avoid the call.

  20. avatar T. Richardson says:

    No nice check for ccws in arkansas

  21. avatar M.C. says:

    The gun permit rechecks is concerning. Feels like a precursor to gun confiscation. An updated list of confirmed permit holders would come in real handy to effectively confiscate legally registered and permitted gunowners…

  22. avatar Sam Hill says:

    Be careful what you you wish for. When they start doing all these number things. The next on the menu is: “Well if all guns were registered we know how many there are, and if the guns are registered, lets register the owners, now we should pass that law, just for the public’s safety. “ see how easy that is. ”wow Sam has 450 guns send swat he might be starting a revolution. ” Sam is in his sandy backyard, a swat team member runs up behind him and yells “FREEZE ” half of the other 25 cops are screaming ”GET ON YOUR HANDS, AND KNEES ” The other half are screaming “DROP THE WEAPON “! Sam turns to tell them he ain’t about to drop an empty 4k dollar Belgian twice barreled skeet shooter in the sand, but, before he gets to empty, he’s caught 56 bullets out of 271 rounds fired. Everyone went home said it was a good days work… Except Sam, he’s on a different spreadsheet now.

  23. avatar David Frantz says:

    In all my years of having a FOID in Illinois, they never continue the number assigned, it should be like a drivers license you have it for life the number I mean.

  24. avatar BusyBeef says:

    Handguns are simply way more fun and challenging to shoot than long guns.

  25. avatar Bob says:

    Maryland has/had a practice of checking out of state plates for a CCW permit holders, then a stop for made-up traffic issue and a matter of fact question – do you have any guns in the car? This is followed by a question are you sure if you say no. Then a search of the car. If you have not stored your gun in a locked safe and you ammo in another locked safe locked in the trunk, you get arrested and charged with a violation of their draconian gun laws. I grew up in Illinois, return for HS reunions, same issues. Lived in Maryland for years before I escaped the communist state. Have to return and visit family. I will not travel to either state in an auto-registered to me. I always rent a car for the trip and hopefully it is way harder to find a connection to the CCW list in my home state. Irony of the Illinois issue is I obtained my initial gun safety and marksmanship training in my public high school as part of the mandatory Physed course. Yes, we had a shooting range in the HS and was manned by volunteer certified NRA instructors and range safety officers.

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