Amid riots and pandemic, FBI firearm background checks soar to record numbers in 2020

The monthly stats dating back to late 1998 reveal that the three largest numbers of background checks have all occurred this year

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Person pointing a gun at a target in Illinois in 2014
Person pointing a gun at a target in Illinois in 2014
(Scott Olson/Getty Images)
Updated: August 3, 2020 - 11:29pm

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The FBI has conducted more than three million National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) firearm background checks during four out of the seven months so far in 2020, an all-time record.

The monthly stats dating back to late 1998 reveal that the three largest numbers of monthly background checks have all occurred this year:

  • June 2020: 3,931,607
  • March 2020: 3,740,688
  • July 2020: 3,639,244

The only other months when record checks rose past the three million mark were May 2020 (3,091,455 checks) and December 2015 (3,314,594), according to the data.

"When a person tries to buy a firearm, the seller, known as a Federal Firearms Licensee (FFL), contacts NICS electronically or by phone. The prospective buyer fills out the ATF form, and the FFL relays that information to the NICS. The NICS staff performs a background check on the buyer. That background check verifies the buyer does not have a criminal record or isn't otherwise ineligible to purchase or own a firearm. Since launching in 1998, more than 300 million checks have been done, leading to more than 1.5 million denials," according to the FBI.

"The NICS provides full service to the FFLs in 30 states, five U.S. territories, and the District of Columbia. The NICS provides partial service to seven states. The remaining 13 states perform their own checks through the NICS," the FBI says.

The FBI points out that there is not a direct correlation between the number of background checks and the amount of weapons sold. 

"These statistics represent the number of firearm background checks initiated through the NICS. They do not represent the number of firearms sold. Based on varying state laws and purchase scenarios, a one-to-one correlation cannot be made between a firearm background check and a firearm sale," the monthly statistics sheet notes. 

So far 2020 has proven a tumultuous year nationally as Americans have endured the coronavirus pandemic and related government restrictions and lockdowns. National unrest has also been been featured following the May 25 death of George Floyd, a black man, who died after a white police officer held his knee on Floyd's neck even as Floyd said he could not breathe.

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