Caution and Sense with NICS Data and Gun Sale Spikes – by Trent Steidley

My recent posts about the great COVID19 gun buying spree of March 2020 (especially handguns) elicited some helpful clarifying and corrective tweets from my colleague Trent Steidley (bio below). I don’t know any sociologist as familiar or adept with National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) data as he is.

I am grateful, therefore, that he has written up his thoughts on using caution and sense with NICS data and gun sale spikes. In three separate posts here, he offers some clarifications and alternative takes for those really trying to understand what happened last month.

Frisco Gun Club, Texas. Photo by David Yamane

By Trent Steidley

You will have heard that March 2020 was a gangbuster month for gun sales. To be sure, two things are certainly true.

One, a lot of people went to gun stores, got background checks, and likely bought guns in March 2020 (and the reason for this is certainly because of COVID19, but whether these are new gun buyers afraid of social unrest or current owners afraid of government actions will take time to tell). Two, the majority of these guns sold were handguns.

But there are some narratives in these news stories that we should be cautious about.

NARRATIVE #1: NICS background checks measure all gun sales

No. NICS background checks are a proxy for gun sales. They are not a one-to-one indicator of gun sales, especially in states where private transfers are allowed (a.k.a. the gun show loophole).

Still, any new gun from a factory can only be sold by a Federal Firearms Licensee (FFL), so NICS checks are certainly capturing sales of new guns. NICS checks can indicate relative changes in rates of sales. So NICS numbers are better than nothing.

There is a major problem with NICS data, though, and its one that some news outlets regularly ignore. NICS checks from the FBI include things like background checks for concealed carry licenses. Mother Jones is recently guilty of this. Consider this graphic from their story.

Those numbers only add up if checks for “permits” in Texas (which is likely regular checks by the state on licenses to carry to make sure licenses are still valid) are included from the FBI data. If you include only NICS checks for likely sales (i.e. the FBI says it was explicitly for a firearm sales) the numbers are much smaller, as seen in the graphic I produced shown below.

Author’s analysis of NICS data from Texas compared to Mother Jones.

I’m sure Mother Jones wants to tell their audience a story that gun sales dramatically increased from February to March, but they can still emphasize that increase with accurate data. As is, the Texas numbers are 32% larger in February and 18% larger in March just by letting permit checks look like sales.

Mother Jones also says 3.7 million gun sales happened in March 2020, a wildly high number that again doesn’t exclude these administrative NICS checks. If you remove those checks that were clearly NOT for sales, the estimate is comes down to 2.3 million. Mother Jones is reporting a national number where 39% of those “sales” are not sales at all.

This issue with the administrative NICS checks will only become more important as more people keep applying for concealed carry licenses and states use the NICS system in this way. The unadjusted numbers for more recent and future years will continue to be inflated over past years.

The problem is not hard to fix, though. The FBI NICS data allow analysts to make the adjustment like I did here for Texas. The fact that some news outlets report these numbers without making their own adjustments is misleading, at best. Anecdotally, I have noticed that the New York Times and Washington Post are better at being accurate in this regard than outlets like Mother Jones.

About the Author

Trent Steidley is Assistant Professor in the Department of Sociology and Criminology at the University of Denver. His research seeks to understand how social movements, politics, and the criminal justice system interact to affect policy and criminal justice outcomes in the United States, particularly with regard to firearms. His current research specifically focuses on the determinants and consequences of concealed carry weapons laws in the United States, the determinants of police spending on military equipment, and the determinants of firearm demand in the United States.

Recent publications include:

Malone, Chad and Trent Steidley. 2019. “Determinants of Variation in State Concealed Carry Laws, 1970-2016.” Sociological Forum 34(2).

Steidley, Trent. 2019. “The Effect of Concealed Carry Weapons Laws on Firearm Sales.” Social Science Research 78:1–11.

Steidley, Trent. 2018. “Big Guns or Big Talk? How the National Rifle Association Matters for Conceal Carry Weapons Laws.” Mobilization: An International Quarterly 23(1):101–25.

7 thoughts on “Caution and Sense with NICS Data and Gun Sale Spikes – by Trent Steidley

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  3. COMMENT POSTED FOR Maj. Morgan J. Goring (US Army Retired):

    NICS as a proxy for FFL gun sales… everyone is reporting on the number of NICS checks run, the assumption seems to be 1:1 for background checks and firearms… yet if you purchase 4 handguns at same FFL on same day, they run 1 NICS check. Same for long guns. Adjusting for multiple same-day purchases might make the real # somewhere in-between Mother Jones and Trent’s.
    FWIW all the shooters I know are cheap… especially when ordering receivers, frames, guns online. All the local FFLs charge a fee for the transfer & NICS check, let’s say $30. But additional same-day transfers are a fraction of that, say $10. So if you order 1 Glock frame at $100, it’s $130 with transfer. 4 frames at $100 +$60 transfer fees brings the total ($460) per frame down to $115… and I know a lot of buyers who are willing to order more guns/frames/receivers just to save the $15 amortized cost.

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