COVID-19 NICS Crash, COVID-19 background check system
(Photo by FBI)

Since the COVID-19 crisis erupted, firearms-related businesses became inundated with requests to purchase firearms. As the purchase requests climbed, the inevitable happened: COVID-19 started to crash the National Instant Background Check System (NICS). The system can’t handle the rapid rise in background check requests.

COVID-19 vs. the NICS System

The Scranton Times-Tribune reported that on March 18, “The state police announced the computer system that conducts background checks on firearms purchases, which is called the Pennsylvania Instant Check System, crashed twice in one day.”

This failure came as gun transactions on March 19, 2020, soared. How much? They jumped more than 300 percent higher than they were on March 19, 2019; that’s a trend seen across the nation. The demand in Washington D.C. grew so much that it forced the only FFL in our nation’s capital to close.

This led the National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF), one of the nation’s leading firearms industry organizations to issue a statement on March 26.

“According to NICS, there are delays in the system due to an astronomical volume of transactions over the last several days. While much of the NICS System is automated and yields an immediate ‘proceed’ or ‘deny’ determination, transactions that result in a delayed status require the work of NICS examiners to investigate whether the transaction should be approved or not. With daily volumes roughly double that of last year, the NICS team is unable to begin investigations on all delays within three business days, creating a backlog in the delayed checks.”

Ironically, this is one of the main arguments opponents of NICS use, that there are delays in the background check system. Proponents argue that a 40 percent increase in NICS checks could already cause the NICS system to crash. So a 300 percent increase was a clear overload on the system. The system simply can’t handle the increase in volume; this adds delays that are growing unacceptably long.

Delays, Delays, Delays

Of the COVID-19 delays, the NSSF said, “… because of the dramatic increase in volume, it is important to recognize FBI staff may not be able to begin their research on delayed transactions as they normally would. Therefore, you may want to consider waiting on a definitive response from the NICS before opting to proceed with a sale on any delayed transaction. We are operating during exceptional and uncertain times, so you may wish to consider implementing temporary changes in order to safeguard yourself and your business.”

This is true. While firearms dealers want to be able to sell firearms to law-abiding Americans, they can’t safely due that without a function background check system that the COVID-19 crisis has crippled. Everyone feeling the need to protect themselves also questions how we can fix the NICS system to prevent future crashes. It needs thorough examination.

NICS has had processing problems for quite some time. NSSF has long held “a background check is only as good as the records in the database … including ensuring all missing records are included that will help more accurate and complete background checks.”

This statement highlights the two major legacy problems with NICS: a lack of funding and a lack of records support.

NICS Breakdown

The NICS system is broken up into a central NICS database run by the FBI and several state-run NICS similar databases. The state level acts as an “in-between” in certain areas for Federal Firearms Licensees and NICS; this relates to the 10th Amendment of the Constitution, which bars the federal government from mandating states participation in NICS.

NICS provides full service to the FFLs in 30 states, five U.S. territories, and the District of Columbia. NICS also provides partial service to seven states. The remaining 13 states perform their own checks through the NICS.

While the FBI is responsible for NICS, historically it suffered from being understaffed and underfunded. Stephen Morris used to run the FBI’s Criminal Justice Information Services Division from 2014 to 2017; that division includes NICS. He stated that during his tenure he asked for money for additional staff every year he ran the division. However, he never got as much as he needed.

“In my tenure I don’t ever recall being at a place where we felt like we were adequately staffed,” Morris told The Trace. This makes keeping pace with sales difficult, as over the last few years the nation has seen an overall increase in sales. If NICS isn’t funded and staffed properly, how can it keep pace with demand on its cyber infrastructure or staffing?


To make matters worse, although federal law requires every licensed firearms dealer to conduct background checks through the FBI’s NICS System, state participation varies due to its voluntary status. NICS is a records-driven system. So if records don’t go into the system, including adjudicated mental health records, it can’t perform the expected checks; this also causes delays.

In 2014, five states submitted less than 10 records, according to reports. Meanwhile, eight states submitted fewer than 100 records of people prohibited from purchasing firearms due to active adjudicated mental health records; this included the suspect from the Virginia Tech mass shootings. The lack of states submitting records has created real issues and endangered lives.

Despite the lack of records, between the end of 1998 and Aug. 31, 2016, a total of 735,527 felons and misdemeanants were denied after a NICS check; this is the goal—to keep firearms out of the hands of prohibited persons. NICS was established to ensure firearms dealers were able to lawfully and safely sell a firearm to a law-abiding American.

Two things need to happen moving forward. Firstly, the powers that be need to properly update the NICS system’s records. Secondly, it needs the necessary funding to fully function. These are the surest ways for all Americans to enjoy and protect their Second Amendment rights.

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