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Background Checks for Firearm Transfers, 2002

ADVANCE FOR RELEASE AT 4:30 A.M. EDT Bureau of Justice Statistics
WEDNESDAY, SEPTEMBER 17, 2003 Contact: Stu Smith


WASHINGTON, D.C.- The National Instant Criminal Background Check System last year rejected 136,000 applications from among the more than 7.8 million applications to buy or transfer a firearm, a 1.7 percent rejection rate, the Justice Department's Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) announced today.

Since the inception of the system, mandated by the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act, approximately 976,000 of the 45.7 million background checks resulted in rejections, an aggregate rejection rate of 2.1 percent during the period.

The Act requires that a background check be conducted by the FBI or a state agency prior to the transfer of a firearm from a federally licensed dealer to a purchaser. The Act established the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (or NICS) in which about half the checks nationwide are conducted by the FBI and half by state agencies. In May 2003, the FBI reported that under a new process for conducting the checks implemented in mid-2002, an immediate determination of applicant eligibility to purchase a firearm is now occurring in more than 90 percent of background queries.

The national background check system has experienced substantial improvement in the ability to detect prohibited purchasers for reasons other than a felony conviction background. In 2002, for the first time since the Act became effective in 1994, more prospective firearms purchasers were rejected for reasons other than a felony conviction history (52 percent) than those rejected for having a prior felony conviction (48 percent). The most common reason for denial for a non-felony background was having a prior conviction for a misdemeanor offense involving domestic violence.

The Federal Gun Control Act, 18 U.S.C. Section 922, prohibits the transfer of a firearm to a person who

  • is under indictment for or has been convicted of a crime punishable by imprisonment for more than one year
  • is a fugitive from justice
  • is an unlawful user or is addicted to any controlled substance
  • has been adjudicated as a mental defective or committed to a mental institution
  • is an illegal alien or has been admitted to the United States under a non-immigrant visa
  • was discharged from the U.S. military service under dishonorable conditions
  • has renounced U.S. citizenship
  • is subject to a court order restraining him or her from harassing, stalking or threatening an intimate partner or child.
  • has been convicted in any court of a felony or misdemeanor crime of domestic violence.

In addition, the statute makes it unlawful for any licensed importer, manufacturer, dealer or collector to transfer a long gun to a person younger than 18 years old or any other type of firearm to a person less than 21 years old.

During 2002 all states had databases that recorded past felony convictions and many had data on other disqualifying factors. States differ on the degree of automation in record searching and whether records are in a central database or in databases maintained by county courts or other state or local agencies.

BJS surveys indicate that since the initiation of the Act states have made substantial gains in the quality and accuracy of criminal history records and the ability to share information. A firearms background check today consists of an ability to instantly access and review up to 53 million records held by the FBI and by state records repositories. (See "Improving Criminal History Records for Background Checks.")

The publication "Background Checks for Firearm Transfers, 2002" (NCJ-200116) was written by Matthew J. Hickman and Devon B. Adams, of BJS, and Michael Bowling and Gene Lauver, of the Regional Justice Information Service. Single copies may be obtained by calling the BJS Clearinghouse at 1-800-851-3420. After release, electronic versions can be accessed at:


For additional information about Bureau of Justice Statistics statistical reports programs, please see the BJS website at


BJS media calls should be directed to Stu Smith in OJP's Office of Communications at [email protected] or 202-307-0784. After hours: 301-983-9354.

The Office of Justice Programs (OJP) provides federal leadership in developing the nation's capacity to prevent and control crime, administer justice, and assist crime victims. OJP is headed by an Assistant Attorney General and comprises 5 component bureaus and 2 offices: the Bureau of Justice Assistance, the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the National Institute of Justice, the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, and the Office for Victims of Crime, as well as the Executive Office for Weed and Seed, and the Office of the Police Corps and Law Enforcement Education. Information about OJP programs, publications, and conferences is available on the OJP Web site, www.ojp.usdoj.gov.

Date Published: September 17, 2003