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Federal Firearm Offenders, 1992-98: With Preliminary Data for 1999 & Background Checks for Firearm Transfers, 1999

SUNDAY, June 4, 2000 202/307-0784

More Than 200,000 Firearms Applications Rejected in 1999
Defendants Charged with Federal Firearms Offenses Increased from 1998 to 1999

WASHINGTON, D.C.- Approximately 536,000 of the more than 22.2 million individual applications to purchase or pawn firearms have been rejected based on federal, state or local laws since the inception of the Brady Act in February 1994.

Also, at least 6,728 defendants were charged with firearms offenses in United States district courts in 1999 up from 6, 297 defendants in 1998. Between 1992 and 1997 the number of defendants charged with a firearm offense decreased before increasing in 1998 and 1999.

This information comes from two separate reports released today by the Justice Department's Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS).

Firearm Background Checks

In 1999, of the 123,000 rejections made by state and local agencies, 73 percent were rejected because of a felony conviction or indictment. Domestic violence convictions or restraining orders accounted for 11 percent of these rejections; and 4 percent were due to state or local law prohibitions.

During 1999, slightly less than half of the firearms applications were screened through state or local points of contact (POCs); the rest of the checks were handled by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) through its National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS).

Of the approximately 8.6 million applications to transfer firearms in 1999, about 204,000 (2.4 percent ) were rejected. The rejection rate among state or local POCs was 3.0 percent; at the federal level it was 1.8 percent. State POCs have access to more detailed criminal history records than the FBI, and more than two-thirds of the U.S. population are in the 26 states that do their own background checks for handguns.

Firearm Offense Prosecutions

During 1998, the most recent year for which complete data are available, 85 percent, or 5,419, of the 6,397 firearms defendants were charged with a firearms possession offense, half of whom were charged with using a firearm during a violent offense or a drug offense (18 U.S.C. 924(c)). Seven percent of the 1998 firearm defendants were charged with unlawfully receiving or transferring a firearm (18 U.S.C. 922).

From 1992 through 1999, among defendants charged with illegally possessing a firearm, 48 percent were charged with using a firearm during a violent crime or during a drug trafficking offense (18 U.S.C. 924), 44 percent were charged with unlawfully possessing a firearm, 8 percent with having an unregistered firearm, 3 percent with possessing a firearm with an altered or obliterated serial number and 3 percent with having stolen firearms. (Because of multiple charges against some defendants these percentages do not total 100 percent.) In 1998, 61percent of those charged with unlawful possession also were charged with other offenses, such as drug trafficking (54 percent), bank robbery (21 percent) and racketeering (9 percent).

Of those convicted of unlawfully receiving or transferring a firearm during 1998, 47 percent were prohibited from possessing a firearm, 19 percent had made straw purchases (that is, bought firearms for someone else), 6 percent were gun store merchants who had made illegal deals and 28 percent were other people unlawfully selling firearms, e.g. unlicensed dealers.

Between 1992 and 1997 the number of defendants charged with a firearms offense decreased 19 percent (from 7,621 to 5,993). A reason for this decline was the December 1995 Supreme Court decision (Bailey v. United States) that limited prosecutors' ability to charge defendants with using a firearm during a violent or drug offense. After this decision, prosecutors began using sentence enhancements to compensate for the loss of this charge. Overall, the number of defendants who received an enhanced sentence for weapon use under the Federal sentencing guidelines increased 31 percent. The increased use of the sentencing guideline enhancement offsets the decreased use of 18 U.S.C. 924(c) as a result of Bailey. It is estimated that 2,500 more defendants would have been charged with possession under 924(c) between 1995 and 1998 if the Supreme Court had ruled differently in the Bailey case.

Between 1992 and 1998 the proportion of convicted firearm defendants sentenced to prison increased from 85 percent to 91 percent. In 1998 the firearms defendants sentenced to prison were given, on average, terms of 100 months up from an average of 79 months from 1992. Those defendants convicted during 1998 of using a firearm in a violent or drug offense were sentenced to an average of 110 months in addition to any other sentence imposed for the violent or drug offense.

In 1998, 198 firearms defendants were sentenced as armed career criminals, offenders convicted of unlawfully possessing a firearm and having had three prior convictions for violent felonies or serious drug offenses. These defendants were sentenced to serve an average of 215 months in prison.

The federal Gun Control Act of 1968 prohibits the sale of firearms to any person who (1) is a juvenile, (2) is a fugitive from justice, (3) is under indictment for, or has been convicted of, a crime punishable by imprisonment for more than one year, (4) is an unlawful user of a controlled substance, (5) has been adjudicated as a mental defective or committed to a mental institution, (6) is an alien unlawfully in the United States, (7) was discharged from the armed services under dishonorable conditions, (8) has renounced U.S. citizenship, (9) is subject to a court order restraining him or her from harassing, stalking or threatening an intimate partner or child or (10) is a person who has been convicted of domestic violence.

"Background Checks of Firearm Transfers, 1999" (NCJ-180882), was prepared by Lea S. Gifford and Devon B. Adams, of BJS, as well as Gene Lauver and Michael Bowling, of the Regional Justice Information Service, a criminal justice agency commissioned by the city and county of St. Louis, Missouri. "Federal Firearm Offenders, 1992-98--With Preliminary Data for 1999" (NCJ-180795), was written by BJS statistician John Scalia. Single copies of the reports may be obtained from the BJS fax- on-demand system by dialing 301/519-5550, listening to the complete menu and selecting document numbers 205 and 206. Or call the BJS clearinghouse at 1-800-851-3420. Fax orders for mail delivery to 410/492- 4358.

After 4:30 p.m. June 4 the full report may be obtained from the BJS Internet site at:


Additional criminal justice materials can be obtained from the Office of Justice Programs homepage at:


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After hours contact: Stu Smith at 301/983-9354

Date Published: June 4, 2000