FBI's National Instant Criminal Background Check System Celebrates Its 25th Anniversary

The attempted assassination of President Ronald Reagan in March 1981 prompted a renewed national discussion of gun violence that ultimately solidified the need for a national background check system. 

James Brady, the White House press secretary at the time, was seriously wounded in the assassination attempt and was unable to resume his official duties. Following the events in 1981, he found a new mission as a dedicated advocate for a national standard on background checks for gun purchasers. His commitment led to the passage of the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act of 1993 (Brady Act), which was signed into law in November of that year.

The Brady Act amended the Gun Control Act of 1968 and called for the creation of what is now the FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS). Five years later, NICS became operational, receiving its first request for a firearm background check on November 30, 1998.

In the 25 years since that first call, NICS has been steadfast in the mission “to enhance national security and public safety by providing the timely and accurate determination of a person’s eligibility to possess firearms and/or explosives in accordance with federal law.”

NICS completed 900,000 background checks during its first year alone. To date, NICS has processed more than 460 million background checks.

NICS remains a large focal point for public safety. The NICS Denial Notification Act (NDNA) and the Bipartisan Safer Community Act (BSCA) were both passed last year by Congress to expand the system's effectiveness in that capacity, 

The NDNA was signed into law in March 2022 as part of the Consolidated Appropriations Act. The NDNA requires NICS to notify the appropriate local law enforcement agencies when the FBI denies a prospective firearm transfer. These denial notification reports are submitted based on the locations of both the federal firearms licensee (FFL) where the denied transfer was sought and of the denied transferee’s residence. Between the NDNA's rollout on September 26, 2022, and November 14, 2023, NICS sent denial notifications to law enforcement agencies on 142,632 federal firearm background checks.

BSCA, signed into law in June 2022, expanded the relationship criteria in domestic violence cases. BSCA also enhanced background checks for persons under 21 years old who attempt to receive a firearm from an FFL, referred to as "under-21 transactions." BSCA gives NICS more time to finish researching potentially prohibiting juvenile records as described under 18 U.S.C. 922(d) during under-21 transactions, if needed. BSCA also lets FFLs voluntarily submit NICS background checks on consenting current or prospective employees. These background checks are known as Firearms Handler Checks (FHCs). The NICS Section’s processing of FHCs is currently in the regulatory process, and implementation will begin after approval is granted.

In the 25 years since NICS began operations, amendments to the Brady Act have refined the FBI’s ability to keep citizens safer.

For example, when NICS recently received an under-21 transaction and subsequently performed BSCA-required research, NICS staff received documents showing a juvenile adjudication for a felony charge. This charge would've been punishable by over one year of imprisonment if committed by an adult. However, this critical documentation wasn't available in the databases that are traditionally searched for NICS purposes. As a result, NICS was able to deny the transaction in accordance with federal law.

For 25 dedicated years, NICS continued to serve its mission, refining and enhancing its effectiveness to progress the FBI’s commitment to the American public. That momentum carries NICS’ commitment to helping keep the public safe by doing all it can to keep firearms out of the hands of those who shouldn't have them and to ensure law-abiding citizens can be proceeded to receive firearms in a timely manner.