In recent years, the FBI — which manages the system that vets gun buyers — processed an average of 8.6 million gun background checks annually, according to historical data analyzed by FiveThirtyEight. But last year, the bureau processed 12,761,328 background checks, according to FBI data obtained by FiveThirtyEight through a public records request.
Perhaps most alarming, the FBI never finished over 316,000 background checks in the first nine months of 2020 alone — far more than in any other year on record. And that number doesn’t include October, November and December — usually the busiest months for gun sales, when 3.4 million background checks were opened last year.
In other words, it’s impossible to know how many guns were sold to people in 2020 who couldn’t legally own them because those background checks were never completed.
Asked why it didn’t finish so many background checks in 2020, the FBI said in a statement that it “depends on the availability of relevant information and records provided by federal, state, local, and tribal agencies.” The bureau also said that it has “reallocated resources to help ensure that it can continue processing background checks efficiently.”
Gun sales have surged since April 2020, thanks, at least in part, to the pandemic, protests last summer for racial justice and the election of President Biden in November. The FBI data shows how the background check system has struggled to keep up. And, at this point, it’s unclear when the problem is going to get better.
— Joshua Eaton in More People Are Buying Guns. Fewer People Are Getting Background Checks.