Everything You Need to Know About Federal Background Checks (2023)

In the United States, anybody who wants to buy a gun from a federally licensed firearms dealer (FFL) is subject to a background check. Since 1998, when the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, or NICS, went online, the Federal Bureau of Investigation has processed more than 320 million of them.

The overwhelming majority of gun background checks take just minutes to clear the would-be buyer. Only 2 percent result in a rejection because of a disqualifying record in the shopper’s personal history.

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And then there are the people who slip through the cracks and obtain guns they should have been barred from possessing — sometimes with deadly consequences. The perpetrators of February’s workplace shooting in Aurora, Illinois; the church massacres in Sutherland Springs, Texas, and Charleston, South Carolina; and the 2007 rampage at Virginia Tech each had a history that banned them from owning firearms. Yet none were stopped, because of omissions and loopholes in the system.

It’s such cases that expose the hidden complexities of NICS, and the importance of each element functioning the way that it should.

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Given the central role that background checks play in balancing individual Americans’ gun rights and our shared public safety, it’s worth investing a few minutes to understand how they work.

I walk into a licensed gun store and ask to buy a gun. What happens next?

You’ll have to complete Form 4473, which includes 16 questions relating to your background, drug use, and criminal history. The gun store will then contact NICS online or by phone and supply your answers, and your Social Security number.

What does the FBI look for in a background check?

Anything that makes a person too high-risk to possess lethal firepower, in the eyes of the law. Those include criminal and mental health history, dishonorable military discharges, unlawful immigration status, an open warrant, a documented history of domestic violence, and drug use.

Felony convictions are the most common reason for the gun background check system to reject an applicant, resulting in 865,910 denials during the 21 years that NICS has been in operation. More than 189,000 fugitives, 212,000 domestic offenders, and 148,000 unlawful drug users have also been blocked. The bar for denying someone on mental health grounds is very high, requiring that a person has been declared unsound or involuntarily confined to a psychiatric institution by a court or other authority. Fewer than 43,000 people have been denied under this criterion.

Where does the gun background check system get all this information?

To ascertain whether an applicant should be disqualified from owning a gun, the FBI draws from three databases. The Interstate Identification Index is a giant repository of criminal convictions used by an array of law enforcement agencies for a range of purposes. The National Crime Information Center, or NCIC, is an “electronic clearinghouse” of other criminal justice records, including protective orders and disposition records Finally, there’s the NICS Indices, which include records contributed by federal, state and local agencies specifically flagging individuals prohibited from buying a gun.

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The NICS Indices hold records that wouldn’t necessarily show up in the other two solely criminal databases. That includes those related to mental health and immigration status. However, some states like Connecticut add nearly all prohibiting records to the NICS Indices because they typically result in a quick denial, without any need for further investigation by the FBI.

So if someone has done something that leaves them banned from firearm ownership, that record will be in one of the databases, the FBI will see it, and they won’t get the gun?

That’s the idea — but as experts will tell you, the gun background check system is only as strong as the records it contains. Some records never make it into the databases, and others are entered in a way that doesn’t make it crystal clear that the person is barred from possessing guns.

States voluntarily supply records to the databases that make up the NICS system, and they do a spotty job of it. According to a Bureau of Justice Statistics report, at the end of 2014 there were 7.8 million active-warrant records in state warrant databases, but only about 2.1 million such records in the NCIC database.

Mental health records present a particular problem. The only way a history of involuntary psychiatric confinement or a judge’s ruling of mental incompetence will show up on a gun background check is if a state makes the effort to submit it to the NICS Indices — those records aren’t meant for the other two databases. The Virginia Tech massacre, committed by a gunman whose history of severe psychiatric illness had not been forwarded to the the FBI, exposed shortfalls in mental health reporting to the NICS Indices. Several states have since made progress in correcting those omissions, but others have remained resistant, citing privacy laws.

The military has also fallen short in forwarding records from its internal justice system. The names of service members expelled under a dishonorable discharge are forwarded to the NICS Indices, since a dishonorable discharge, on its own, triggers a gun ban. Service members convicted in court-martials for other offenses, like felony assault, domestic violence, or drug possession, may also be prohibited from possessing firearms. Those records go into NCIC. Base officers are supposed to add labels to the paperwork database making it clear when the offender is barred from guns.

(Video) What You Must Know About Background Checks

In the case of the Sutherland Springs gunman, records from his Air Force court-martial for choking his then-wife and fracturing the skull of his baby stepson were never entered into the FBI’s system. He was able to buy at least three guns from licensed sellers, passing a background check each time. In May, a federal judge ruled that survivors of the massacre and family members of the victims can sue the federal government for negligence.

Do gun background checks work the same in every state?

Yes and no.

Federal law establishes the grounds for gun bans, so generally speaking, a history that gets a person barred in one state will also bar him across the country. But states can also decide that other crimes should also initiate a ban. The federal gun prohibition for domestic abusers doesn’t apply to dating partners, for instance, so 23 states and the District of Columbia have passed their own laws closing that so-called boyfriend loophole.

States also have the option of running their own gun background checks, supplementing the FBI’s databases by sweeping state and local records repositories as well. Twenty one states choose to do so.

Back to my check: How long does it take?


The 12 Reasons Why Americans Fail Federal Gun Background ChecksMore than 1.7 million people have been blocked from buying a gun after failing federal background checks since 1998. But some reasons for denial are more common than others.
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NICS has “instant” in its name for a reason. Department of Justice guidelines require NICS reviewers to make an immediate decision in 90 percent of cases.

If the check comes back clean, the FBI gives the sale a green light. If it doesn’t, the purchase is denied. Sometimes the FBI seeks more information in order to make a final determination. In those cases, the check is transferred to the FBI’s Criminal Justice Information Services Division, where an examiner reaches out to local law enforcement and other state agencies.

So when a gun background check isn’t instant, how long can it take?

When a check requires more information, the FBI has three business days to make a final determination on the buyer. If a decision can’t be made in that time, a licensed dealer is allowed by law to go ahead and sell the firearm, in a sale referred to by the FBI as a “default proceed.”

The dealer is not required to notify the FBI when a sale goes through this way. The NICS examiner tasked with the case is supposed to keep working on it and has up to 90 days to reach a final conclusion.

Default proceed sales can have public safety implications. In April 2015, the Charleston church gunman legally purchased a Glock in such a transaction after a cascade of clerical errors delayed his background check. He was disqualified from gun ownership because of a drug charge. Two months later, he used the weapon he bought to murder nine parishioners at a church in Charleston, South Carolina.

(Video) Understanding The FBI Criminal Background Check System

FBI data also indicates that some categories of prohibited purchasers tend to stretch past the three-business day window more often than others. According to a December 2016 Government Accountability Office report, the FBI takes a week to deny sales because of a misdemeanor domestic violence conviction. That’s more time than any other kind of denial, which is troubling considering the strong link between domestic violence, homicide and mass shootings.

Say my background check ultimately does show I’m not allowed to own guns, but after the three-day period has expired? Then what happens to the gun I just bought?

If the FBI determines that the buyer was prohibited, the agency sends out a retrieval order to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. The ATF is then responsible for getting the gun back.

Retrieval orders are relatively rare: A NICS operations report from 2000 noted that of more than 45,000 default proceeds issued that year, approximately 5,000 resulted in a retrieval order.


What do government jobs look for in background checks? ›

Federal background checks may include: Information specific to government clearance level for a position. A list of arrest records — including the charge, the date of the alleged offense, and the length of time the accused individual remained in law enforcement custody.

What does US background check consist of? ›

Results of a background check typically include past employment verification, credit history and criminal record history. These checks are often used by employers as a means of judging a candidate's past mistakes, character and to identify potential hiring risks for safety and security reasons.

What is the most important part of a background check? ›

Checking for criminal records is the most critical component of the background screening process. Criminal record checks are used when a company needs to know about criminal records or actions such as violent crimes, embezzlement, or felony convictions.

Do most companies do state or federal background checks? ›

The question of "do jobs do nationwide background checks" is difficult to answer because company policies vary. Some employers only do state-level background checks, while others will do a nationwide criminal background check, free or otherwise. It depends on the policies of the specific employer.

How hard is it to pass a federal background check? ›

What does it take to pass a federal background check? The best way to pass the federal background check is to be honest. If you have no criminal history, outstanding debt, conflict of interests, or a history of bad behavior you should be able to pass the background check.

How do I know if I passed my background check? ›

How do you know if you passed a background check? The employer will contact you to let you know that your background check is clear. Alternatively, if you are hired you'll know that there were no issues.

What causes a red flag on a background check? ›

If there is a felony on your criminal record, it could be a red flag for employers. A history of violent crimes, sexual offenses, robberies, or serious drug offenses can make it difficult to pass a background check. However, it can still be possible to get a job even if you have a criminal history.

Do background checks show Internet history? ›

Although security clearance background checks can be intensely thorough, the government can't view your emails, Internet browsing history, hard drive data, and other virtual assets without a subpoena or warrant.

Will a felony show up on a background check after 10 years? ›

Under most circumstances, many locales won't allow a background check companies to share criminal history information that's older than seven years. However, some states allow a background check companies to share information that's up to 10 years old. That includes a conviction, felony, or misdemeanor.

What kind of background check do most employers use? ›

County criminal history searches are the most common form of criminal background check. These searches allow employers to pull reports from court records of specific counties.

What are 5 data points that should be a part of a background investigation in your field? ›

This article highlights the many benefits of background checks and eight areas to never miss while conducting a background investigation.
Confirm the Applicant is a Safe Bet
  • Conduct a Criminal Record Check. ...
  • Conduct a Credit Check. ...
  • Conduct a Motor Vehicle Record Check.
20 Aug 2019

Can background check reveal past employers? ›

The simple answer is no. A background check cannot return a list or database of the jobs that a professional has held over the years. Most pre-employment background check services are geared toward uncovering public record information, such as criminal record information, driving records, and credit history.

How thorough are government background checks? ›

These automated checks look at everything from criminal history to financial information (liens, bankruptcies, and the like) and credit checks. CE screenings also include checks of employees' social media profiles if those profiles are publicly accessible.

How can you fail pre-employment checks? ›

What Causes A Failed Background Check
  1. A Criminal History Is Revealed. ...
  2. Education, Employment And/Or Reference Discrepancies. ...
  3. Poor Driving History. ...
  4. Incomplete References. ...
  5. A Poor Credit History. ...
  6. The Documents Provided Are Fraudulent. ...
  7. Failed Medical Or Drug Test.
25 Aug 2021

How long does a DOD background check take? ›

If a hiring office requests it, an applicant may be granted an interim security clearance within a few weeks after submitting a complete security package. Final clearances usually are processed and adjudicated in less than 90 days.

What is the FBI background check like? ›

The FBI background check will include a comprehensive criminal record check against the FBI's national database, which will include arrest and conviction history, as well as traffic violations and even parking tickets.


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