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Background Checks for Firearm Transfers, 2003

ADVANCE FOR RELEASE AT 4:30 P.M. EDT Bureau of Justice Statistics
THURSDAY, September 23, 2004 Contact: Stu Smith 202/307-0784
  After hours: 301-983-9354


WASHINGTON, D.C.—About 1.6 percent of the approximately 7,831,000 applications for firearm transfers or permits were denied by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) or state or local agencies during 2003, the Justice Department's Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) announced today. This continued a decline in the denial rate from 2.4 percent of applicants in 1999. BJS attributed this decline to an increased reluctance among potential purchasers to be subjected to background checks that now encompass an immediate review of many more records from a wide variety of databases.

The firearms applications were made pursuant to the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act, which requires criminal history background checks on people who apply to buy any type of firearm from federally licensed dealers.

The Federal Gun Control Act, 18 U.S.C. & 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 nonimmigrant 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.

Since February 29, 1994, when the Brady Act went into effect, through December 31, 2003, more than 53 million applications were checked and approximately 1,102,000 were blocked.

During 2003 half of the denials were made by state and local agencies and half by the FBI

From 1999 through 2003, 58 percent of the denials by state and local agencies were for the applicant's felony conviction or indictment, 13 percent for a domestic violence misdemeanor conviction or restraining order, and the remainder for other reasons.

However, 2003 data show that for both state checks and FBI-administered checks, the percentage of application denials for reasons other than a felony conviction history has been growing. For the first time, more than half of all applicants were denied for a misdemeanor domestic violence conviction, for being the subject of a protection order, for a history of mental illness or for another reason. Presale firearm checks entail a search of more than 53 million records held in 14 separate national databases.

About 15 percent of the 790,000 applicants rejected since the Brady Act's full provisions took effect in 1999 appealed their denials. Of these, 35.5 percent have had their denials reversed. This is a denial error rate of approximately 0.1 percent of the 40.8 million checks conducted during that period. At the same time, about 7,200 arrests and 20,000 retrievals from improperly cleared purchasers took place -an error rate of less than 0.1 percent for improperly cleared individuals.

The bulletin, "Background Checks for Firearm Transfers, 2003" (NCJ-204428), was written by Michael Bowling and Gene Lauver, of the Regional Justice Information Service, and Matthew J. Hickman and Devon B. Adams, of BJS. Following publication this document can be accessed at:


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 five component bureaus and two 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 Office of the Police Corps and Law Enforcement Education, and the Community Capacity Development Office, which incorporates the Weed and Seed program and OJP's American Indian and Alaska Native Affairs Desk. More information can be found at www.ojp.usdoj.gov.

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Date Created: May 20, 2009