A Closer Look

NICS enhanced background checks for under-21 gun buyers showing results

Get Most Urgent button on the NICS system for searching enhanced background checks.

A Get Most Urgent button summons legal instrument examiners to open the most time-sensitive request in the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS).

In a sprawling field of cubicles deep inside the FBI's massive technology hub in West Virginia, a legal instrument examiner's computer monitor summons her to select an orange icon blazoned with the words "Get Most Urgent." A click of the mouse opens a time-sensitive request from a federal firearms licensee, in this case a firearms seller or "gun shop," for an enhanced background check on a prospective buyer who is under 21 years old.

A routine check of the FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) runs the subject's name and other biographic information through three databases containing millions of records, including wanted persons and individuals with fingerprint-supported criminal histories. Usually, the results return within minutes and indicate the dealer may, under federal law, "proceed" the transaction or that the transaction shall be "denied" based on the findings. In some cases, results are delayed so examiners can dig a little deeper. In those cases, federal law gives examiners three business days to respond before the dealer can decide on their own whether or not to transfer a gun. 

But this was no routine check. A 2022 law called the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act (BSCA) now requires NICS to go beyond the routine for under-21 gun buyers. In addition to running names through NICS databases, a select group of examiners is now reaching out to state juvenile justice, mental health, and local law enforcement agencies to see if their backgrounds contain potentially disqualifying information that isn't in the databases automatically queried by NICS. Another provision in the new law extends, where cause to do so is established, the time examiners have to investigate under-21 cases from 3 to 10 business days.

In this specific case, when the examiner reached out to those state and local agencies, she discovered that police were already familiar with the subject. They emailed her a list of dozens of incident reports from when he was a juvenile. This submission afforded NICS up to 10 business days to research those records. The examiner researched each of the incidents the local police provided, documented her findings, and, based on those findings, updated the transaction’s status to "denied"—all while remaining within the new 10-day time frame.

When a federal firearms licensee initiates a NICS transaction, a name check is conducted to search three national databases for possible matches. These databases are:

  • the National Crime Information Center (NCIC), which contains information on wanted persons, protection orders, and other persons identified as potentially dangerous to the public or law enforcement
  • the Interstate Identification Index (III),  which allows NICS to access criminal history records
  • the NICS Indices, formerly known as the NICS Index, which contains information individuals who have been determined to be prohibited by federal or state law from possessing or receiving a firearm.

Based on her research, the examiner was confident her determination kept a firearm from reaching a potentially dangerous individual. She added that before the new law, the gun sale would have likely sailed through as soon as it was sent to NICS. "It would have been an automatic proceed the minute you submitted," she said.

Since implementing enhanced background checks for under-21 gun buyers in October 2022, the NICS Section of the FBI's Criminal Justice Information Services (CJIS) Division in Clarksburg, West Virginia, has conducted enhanced background checks on more than 200,000 under-21 transactions. Of those, it has denied more than 600 transactions based solely on "prohibitive" information provided during the enhanced background checks.

"Those people would have received a firearm under a traditional check," said CJIS Division Assistant Director Michael A. Christman. He went on to say that NICS Section staff have spent the past year holding more than 500 training events and reaching more than 4,000 law enforcement agencies so they will understand why the NICS examiners may be reaching out someday soon, if they haven't already. The outreach effort encourages agencies to respond to NICS quickly, even if it's only to say they're unable to assist because of local laws or privacy concerns.

"When you're lacking those criminal history records, particularly a disposition that evidences a conviction for prohibiting offenses—typically a felony—you're left short-handed," Christman said.

The BSCA enhanced background checks for under-21 transactions began with a handful of states in late 2022 and opened fully in January 2023. The FBI's NICS Section provides full-service background checks to federal firearms licensees in 31 states, five U.S. territories, and the District of Columbia. Fifteen states currently perform all their own background checks through the NICS application, and in the remaining four states, the FBI and the state each provide partial service, ensuring that, together, these states have full NICS access.

Early on, state and local law enforcement and mental health agencies were generally slower to respond to NICS examiners when enhanced background checks were sent. Some people didn't know how to respond. And many state and local agencies restrict sharing juvenile criminal histories or juvenile mental health records. The NICS Section continues to consider and pursue all viable avenues for maximizing benefits, and mitigating impacts, to prospective transferees, state and local partners, and the NICS Section itself.

About 64%, and increasing, of the agencies contacted by NICS examiners respond. That’s up from about 30% a year ago.

"When you're lacking those criminal history records, particularly a disposition that evidences a conviction for prohibiting offenses—typically a felony—you're left short-handed."

Michael A. Christman, assistant director, Criminal Justice Information Services (CJIS) Division

  U21 Response Rate Data

  • State Juvenile Justice
      67.50% response rate
    +0.18% since prior week 
    +36.02% since January 24, 2023
  • State Mental Health
      70.70% response rate 
    +0.18% since prior week
    +39.43% since January 24, 2023
  • Local Law Enforcement
      62.27% response rate
    +0.34% since prior week
    +55.88% since January 24, 2023
  • Total response rate of all three agencies contacted: 64.56%
    +0.28% since prior week
    +47.99% since January 24, 2023
           As of close of business on February 29, 2024

Implementation statistics

  • Total transactions—228,403
  • Total Proceeded—214,329
  • Total Denied—2,206
  • Denied based on criminal history—1,568
  • Denied based on BSCA outreach—638

           As of close of business on February 29, 2024

"So we're not sitting back and waiting," said Christman. "We have been hawkish about getting those responses. And that is why not only do we use automation, but we're calling local agencies where we don't get a response."

He said examiners make about 2,000 calls every week to try to quickly close out requests so they can move on to the next. These examiners follow up to advise agencies that, while there is no federal requirement for them to respond, a firearm may transfer to a prohibited person as the result of an agency that doesn't respond. 

The result, he said, has been a more accurate and efficient experience for NICS stakeholders, including prospective purchasers and firearms dealers. NICS responses to federal firearms licensees to "proceed" under-21 checks have gone from taking 11 calendar days, on average, to about 4 days now. And "denials" have improved from 6.5 days to about 2 days.

"The improvement in the response rate—often bolstered by phone calls—has resulted not unexpectedly in us getting these enhanced background checks done in a timely fashion," Christman said. "We’re doing this very efficiently and certainly very quickly so as not to infringe on anyone’s Second Amendment rights."

CJIS Building in the Spring

NICS is located at the FBI's Criminal Justice Information Services Division site in West Virginia.

Last December, NICS recorded its 500th under-21 denial due solely to the BSCA enhanced background check when a state police officer advised a NICS examiner that the buyer had a criminal record related to illegal substance use, which was then confirmed to meet a prohibition. NICS has scores of similar examples where local agencies provided examiners with information that isn't in the FBI’s criminal databases.

Examples of denials after the establishment of valid prohibitions include:

  • A sheriff’s office provided NICS with documentation that a prospective transferee under 21 years of age had been convicted of rape.
  • A juvenile court provided a NICS examiner with documentation that a buyer had been found mentally ill and had been involuntarily committed for mental health treatment.
  • A sheriff’s office informed a NICS examiner that a prospective buyer was in jail on charges that included domestic violence, robbery, and assault with a dangerous weapon.
  • A county court provided NICS with documentation that a purchaser had a juvenile record that included sexual battery, possession of a knife at school, and intimidation.

"We’re very proud of all the things that we have done that we can point to and say, 'Hey, we feel like we’ve saved a life today because somebody that should not be able to get a gun was not able to get a gun,'" Christman said.

Meanwhile, the NICS Section is staffing up with more examiners to meet demand. In January alone, NICS processed more than 2.2 million total background requests. On the day after Thanksgiving last year, Black Friday, NICS processed 214,913 requests, its third-most ever since NICS began doing background checks in 1998.

About 20 experienced examiners shifted from their regional beats in 2022 to assist in handling the enhanced background checks for prospective transferees under-21, including the examiner we spoke with. She has been working NICS background checks for 17 years. Prior to that she was a prison investigator. She said that despite the pressure hanging over every request, she likes the challenge of sorting through clues when she pushes the "Most Urgent" button to reveal the next request.

"When you click the button," she said, "you can get Minnesota. You can get Alaska. You can get Texas. You never know what you’re going to get."

She further emphasized the importance of gathering information and making an accurate final determination for a prohibited person prior to the prospective firearm transfer date.