FBI performed three federal background checks per second on Black Friday
Purchasing guns on Black Friday ‒ the start of the holiday shopping season in the United States ‒ has become an American tradition over the past few years. This year was no different, according to the number of federal background checks run by the FBI. It’s an incomplete, though telling, statistic: the agency has three business days to complete its review of each applicant, who could be purchasing multiple guns, before the weapon is released for sale.
“We're processing approximately two checks per second. And starting around 11 a.m., we'll bump that up to three checks per second,” Kimberly Del Greco, an FBI manager with the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS), told NPR's Rachel Martin Friday morning.
“We started processing background checks at 4:30 this morning. As of 8 a.m., we processed 23,000 checks. From the hour of 9 to 10 before I took the call, we brought in another 10,000 checks,” she added. “So we are truly seeing that spike that we thought we would get today. We're expecting to process about 144,000 checks. And we also expect today to hit our 200 millionth check since the inception of NICS.”
In reality, Del Greco’s team of 600 FBI contractors and employees processed well more than expected ‒ 175,000 background checks ‒ over the course of the day. They brought in an additional 100 workers than usual. And no one was allowed to take leave.
"The challenge is to have staff keep up with this volume. We do that by limiting personal leave, asking employees to work extra shifts and reutilizing former... employees to serve in NICS during this busy period," FBI spokesman Stephen G. Fischer told CNN Friday afternoon, before the final numbers were in.
On Black Fridays, the work can be grueling: One woman took a call that lasted four hours when a dealer phoned in the maximum 99 checks, the Associated Press reported.
"Rules had to be stretched," recalled Sam Demarco, her supervisor. "We can't transfer calls. Someone had to sit in her seat for her while she went to the bathroom."
The NICS in West Virginia does about 58,000 checks on a typical day – a figure that triples on Black Friday. Although stores can use the FBI’s online E-Check System, nearly half the checks are called in to three call centers in Kentucky, Texas and West Virginia. Call center operators check individuals against their name, address, birth date and Social Security Number, but have no access to privileged information about buyers' backgrounds. Nor do they make decisions ‒ that's the responsibility of the gun shop.
The Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act of 1998 prohibits individuals with a felony conviction, arrest warrant, documented drug problem, mental illness, undocumented immigration status, dishonorable military discharge, renunciation of US citizenship, restraining order, history of domestic violence or indictment for any crime punishable by longer than one year of prison from purchasing weapons at licensed dealers.
"[NICS] won't proceed or deny a transaction unless they are ABSOLUTELY certain the information they have is correct and sufficient to sustain that decision," Fischer told AP.
In roughly two percent of the checks handled by the FBI, agents don't get this information in time. If three business days pass without a federal response, buyers can legally get their guns, whether or not the check was completed.
There are nine guns for every 10 people in the US, and someone is killed with a firearm every 16 minutes. Mass shootings are happening every few weeks. Americans are buying more than twice as many guns a year now as they did when the background checks were first implemented in 1998. And that means more gun sales are effectively beating the system, according to AP.
The FBI says states are largely to blame for this problem. They voluntarily submit records, which are often missing information about mental health rulings or criminal convictions, and aren't always rapidly updated to reflect restraining orders or other urgent reasons to deny a sale.
"It takes a lot of effort ... for an examiner to go out and look at court reports, look at judges' documents, try to find a final disposition so we can get back to a gun dealer on whether they can sell that gun or not," Del Greco said to AP. "And we don't always get back to them."
"We are stewards of the states' records," she added. "It's really critical that we have accurate information. Sometimes we just don't."
Even the National Rifle Association, which opposes background checks, agrees that the NICS system needs better data.
"Any database is only going to function as well as the information contained within," NRA spokesman Andrew Arulanandam said.
Researcher Valerie Sargo said outstanding warrants often come up when they examine a red flag, and that can help police make arrests.
"It makes you feel good that this person is not supposed to have a firearm and you kept it out of their hands," she said.
Overall, about 186,000 background checks a year cannot be completed, according to the FBI. Last year, the agency completed 21 million background checks, and about 1.1 percent of those purchases were denied.