FBI NICS E-Check Makes Background Checks for Firearms Purchases E-Z

April 9, 2014
Originally published in the April 2014 edition of the CJIS Link, Volume 16, Number 1

When the FBI began conducting background checks on prospective firearm buyers and other transferees in November 1998, licensed firearm dealers initiated all background checks by telephone. The National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) E-Check first became available to licensed firearm dealers as the electronic means of contacting the FBI NICS Section in August 2002. That year, fewer than 1% of all federal checks were initiated using the NICS E-Check, and the FBI quickly learned that there were obstacles to overcome in order to make the NICS E-Check a more viable contact method.

Initially, access to the FBI NICS through the NICS E-Check was restricted through computer software and certification authority that required each user of the system to download a digital certificate. This limited users to only the computers on which they imported certificates. Because of the high level of employee turnover, major corporations that were also licensed to sell firearms did not want to use the system, finding the maintenance of many certificates to be very difficult. In addition, the system was only compatible with certain browsers. With such obstacles, the number of background transactions initiated via the NICS E-Check remained low throughout the next 4 years.

To help alleviate issues with digital certifications, the FBI eliminated the requirement to have a separate digital certificate for each user of the system; instead it allowed corporations to have one certificate per location accessed by one or more users. This required interested corporations to sign a Memorandum of Understanding agreeing to certain conditions. With the ability to access the system using just one digital certificate per location, major corporations began to come on board after 2008. Over the next 4 years, Gander Mountain, Academy Sports, Bass Pro Shops, and The Sports Authority began using NICS E-Check, raising the total of FBI NICS E-Checks to over 16% of all federal checks by the end of 2012.

In 2013, the FBI introduced the XML Web Service to support machine-to-machine interaction between licensed firearm dealers and NICS E-Check. To take advantage of this feature, licensed firearm dealers had to develop the system on their end to interact with the NICS E-Check. This system facilitated the automation of many steps of the background check process, making it more efficient for licensed firearm dealers. The FBI NICS E-Check 2.0 was also developed and deployed, enabling users to access the system through the Law Enforcement Enterprise Portal with a user name and password. Now licensed firearm dealers can access the system from any computer or browser that addressed the digital certification and browser compatibility issues.

As a result of all of the changes the FBI has made to improve the NICS E-Check, service usage has steadily increased. Three more major corporations, Cabelas, Wal-Mart, and Dick’s Sporting Goods, took advantage of the computer interface and began using NICS E-Check in 2013. Other agencies such as the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission also submit their transactions via E-Check for authorized purposes. Usage has risen so much that as of January 31, 2014, FBI NICS E-Checks comprised over a third of all federal checks.

What does the increased usage mean in terms of service? NICS E-Check benefits Federal Firearms Licensees (FFLs) by providing messages regarding the NICS operational status, delivering the ability to print completed NICS background check search requests, and eliminating “hold” times associated with the NICS Contracted Call Center or for an FBI NICS representative to review a transaction. For customers, E-Check gives added protection against identity theft by safeguarding personal information. For taxpayers and the FBI, NICS E-Check saves money for every transaction initiated through that service. In 2013, for example, the 2,498,075 firearm background checks initiated via E-Check saved the government over $3.8 million at $1.55 per transaction, and in 2014, the cost savings per transaction is expected to rise.

As the FBI continues to improve E-Check, FFLs and their customers will reap the benefits of automation with more timely and efficient background checks for firearms purchases and transfers.

For more information about the NICS, visit http://www.fbi.gov/about-us/cjis/nics.

NICS and E-Checks

1993: The Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act of 1993 (Brady Act) was signed into law requiring licensed firearm dealers to request background checks on prospective firearm transferees. The U.S. Attorney General established the NICS within the FBI’s Criminal Justice Information Services Division for all applicable licensed firearm dealers to contact (either indirectly through established state points of contact or directly if necessary) and initiate these background checks.

1998: The FBI began conducting background checks on prospective firearm transferees.

2002: Despite the FBI NICS E-Check becoming available, only 0.57% of all federal checks were initiated using that method.

2008: FBI NICS E-Check usage was up to just 4.51% of all federal checks.

2012: System improvements began attracting major corporations to FBI NICS E-Check, raising their total to 16.19% of all federal checks.

2014: With the release of NICS E‑Check 2.0 in 2013, more system improvements, and more aggressive promotion, the usage of E-Check comprised 35.16% of all background checks for firearm transactions by January 31.