Background Checks: Fix NICS Why Bother?

By Jeff Knox

Fix NICS Why Bother
Fix NICS Why Bother

Buckeye, AZ –-( The National Instant Check System, or NICS, the computerized system used to perform background checks on retail gun buyers, has been operational since 1998, as part of the 1993 Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act.

The concept of an “instant” check was put forward by the National Shooting Sports Foundation, or NSSF, the trade association for the firearms industry, and the NRA as an alternative to the proposed waiting period and slower background check system included in the original Brady Law.

Since its original adoption, there have been constant efforts to expand, enhance, and improve the $2 billion dollar system. Every time there is a high-profile murder, Congress, President Obama, and media outlets raise the call for expanding NICS background checks, adding more categories of people to the prohibited list, and other “improvements” to the system.

Number of Mental Health Records Submitted by State (as of Apr. 30, 2015)
Number of Mental Health Records Submitted by State (as of Apr. 30, 2015)

One of the most outspoken proponents of enhancements to the NICS system is the NSSF, representing firearm manufacturers, importers, and retailers ( the real Gun Lobby). For several years they have been pushing a program they call Fix NICS.” Their plan calls for the federal government to provide financial incentives to encourage states to submit more records – particularly mental health records – to the NICS system in hopes of preventing people with mental problems from easily acquiring guns.

NSSF is spending tens of thousands of dollars promoting their Fix NICS initiative to the public and lobbying Congress and state legislators.

Meanwhile, the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence has their “Finish the Job” campaign calling for mandatory background checks on all gun buyers, and Mike Bloomberg’s Everytown for Gun Safety is taking the same demand to the states, with lobbying and ballot initiatives. These groups also support more extensive reporting from the states on disqualifying mental health information, but they have directly opposed any legislation which does only that, without addressing their “universal background check” demands.

After the Sandy Hook shooting, when Congress debated expanding NICS to include all private firearm transfers, NSSF’s Fix NICS proposals were offered, and were supported by the NRA and many Republicans, but Democrats rejected those proposals because the wrong people would get credit for them and they didn’t include a “universal background check” provision.

For the NSSF and NRA, lobby for “improving” NICS is primarily a way of showing that they are reasonable and proactively working to solve a problem.

Crazy people don’t have much of a lobby, and who could argue against keeping guns away from mental patients? They also hope to mitigate some of the bad press they get when some clearly demented person commits a heinous crime with a gun. History doesn’t support that hope however. Virtually all of the rampage murderers of the past 30 years passed background checks and would not likely have been stopped by any of the proposed “improvements.” The reality is that people who suffer from diagnosed mental illnesses are no more likely to engage in criminal violence than anyone else. None of the murderers were recognized as a serious threat to society by their doctors or families – at least not serious enough for them to make efforts to remove the individuals from society into a safer, controlled environment.

The murderer in Santa Barbara a couple of years ago came the closest to being identified and stopped by concerned family members, but he was still able to twice pass California’s strict, “universal” background check, and half of his victims were killed with a knife, not guns.

While the gun groups’ efforts to “improve NICS” appear to be motivated by PR concerns, the Brady’s and Bloomies efforts are all geared toward making acquiring a firearm more expensive and complicated for everyone, because they just don’t like guns and think that every gun that they can prevent from being sold equates to a life potentially saved.

The truth is, background checks are already a huge waste of money, and expanding or enhancing them is just a way to waste even more money. The case can certainly be made that the checks make it a little harder for criminals and violent mental cases to get guns, but how much harder, and at what cost?

Expanding the collection of disqualifying information just puts more names on a list. That list currently contains some 12 million names, and current proposals to “improve” the system could easily increase that number to 18 to 20 million. What is most significant about these numbers is the fact that the vast majority of these “prohibited persons” do not actually pose any sort of threat to society.

According to the FBI, out of nearly 200 million transactions processed by NICS since its inception, fewer than 1% resulted in blocked sales, and estimates suggest that at least 25% of those were erroneous, and only a handful are seen as enough of a threat to even be prosecuted for their illegal attempts to purchase a gun. When you consider the fact that the vast majority of gun buyers already own at least one firearm, yet are investigated every time they make a purchase ( or multiple times in the case on NJ), the huge wastefulness of NICS begins to become evident.

NICS is the worst sort of “Big Brother,” intrusion. It wastes hundreds of millions of dollars primarily toward investigating law-abiding, non-threatening citizens, while being incapable of detecting real threats or preventing those who pose a threat from acquiring the means to carry out their heinous crimes – and this convoluted, expensive, ineffective system is all about limiting an enumerated constitutional right.

Of course no one wants violent criminals or violent lunatics to easily acquire firearms. Infringing on the rights of the majority in hopes of slightly hampering the dangerous minority, is not a reasonable solution.

Doesn’t it make more sense to spend those hundreds of millions of dollars on treatment, rehabilitation, incarceration, and institutionalization of the people who represent the threat, rather than spending it on interfering with the rest of us?

The way to truly Fix NICS is to scrap the system and redirect the funds toward fixing mental health treatment, fixing the justice system, and supporting law enforcement.

The Firearms Coalition is a loose-knit coalition of individual Second Amendment activists, clubs and civil rights organizations. Founded by Neal Knox in 1984, the organization provides support to grassroots activists in the form of education, analysis of current issues, and with a historical perspective of the gun rights movement. The Firearms Coalition is a project of Neal Knox Associates, Manassas, VA. Visit:

  • 8 thoughts on “Background Checks: Fix NICS Why Bother?

    1. Ain’t gonna happen. Did that get your attention? Here is the problem. You have an agency who has built a system and domain that specifically deals with spending money and providing minimal value in return. Then when you ask it to validate it when a mistake is made they blame it on not enough money or enough information. So it gets authorization to get more information and then it needs more money and people.

      See anything wrong with this? If you don’t, then you are just a progressive and I have no use for you. This all belongs at the state level. The federal government has no business here. Might as well ask the feds what color shirts you should buy and wear. YOU MUST GET RID OF ALL YOUR FEDERAL POLITICIANS! They are the problem and not the solution. This horse hockey that your politician is good and the rest are bad is just poop! Replace them every election. If the government is too big for them to learn in their term, then they need to reduce its size and not make it bigger.

    2. This system is useless until HIPPA is amended and doctors are forced to report mental cases. Additionally all states not submitting timely information need be stripped of all federal grants until they comply.

    3. If HIPAA (not HIPPA) is amended to force doctors to report mental cases, then people will simply stop talking to their doctors. And what, exactly constitute “mental cases”? This approach is a terribly slippery slope that ends in us having cameras in our homes with “mental health agents” assessing all of our private behavior. We don’t want to go there. Liberty is dangerous. The only way to guarantee complete safety is to enforce zero freedom. I’d rather risk the danger of liberty than to rest in the stale comfort of enforced “safety”.

    4. “. . . who could argue against keeping guns away from mental patients?” Or any other “prohibited-person” for that matter. And, therein lies the answer to the way forward. As a purely political matter, we are whistling into the wind arguing that governments should do nothing to keep guns out of the hands of criminals and crazies. We should be thinking politically about how best to cope with public perception. The whole question we call “NICS” should actually be thought of in several discrete components:
      1. – the prohibited person criteria (felonies, mental illness, domestic violence, etc.)
      2. – the FBI’s NCIC inquiry system for LEOs
      3. – the NICS inquiry system for FFLs; and,
      4. – UBC
      Our objections to “NICS” would go away if we could wipe the slate clean on #1 – i.e., completely repeal every one of the prohibited-persons criteria. But, that just isn’t ever going to happen. So long as even a single criteria remains there will be some mechanism for enforcing that propitiating criteria.

      We ought to argue that the FBI’s NCIC inquiry system ought to be the cornerstone. If the police find someone with a gun they ought to arrest him for unlawful possession if he is a prohibited-person. If we don’t concede this point they we haven’t gotten beyond the political fact-of-life that there will always be prohibited-person criteria. Our position ought to be that the criminal justice system ought to enforce the prohibited person law by prosecuting – appropriately – those found in unlawful possession. This proposition admits of the existence of the lists of prohibited-persons, accessed by LEOs via the FBI’s NCIC inquiry system.

      Our argument ought to be that the NICS system for FFLs is mostly security theater. The attempt to catch a prohibited-person committing the felon-in-posession crime at the POINT-of-SALE is just about futile. This is little more effective than dealers in alcohol or tobacco checking customers’ IDs. It’s just for show. Unless and until the ATF and local LEOs take seriously NICS “Deny” responses the criminal justice system is proving empirically that the FFL NICS check is merely for show. No doubt there are a few prohibited persons who attempt – but fail – in buying a gun at an FFL. Far more straw-buyers succeed; but, law-enforcement very rarely pursues these cases. If law enforcement won’t enforce the law on straw-buying or prohibited-person buying then there is absolutely no reason to expand the BC law beyond the FFL sales floor.

      UBC is out-of-the-question for most PotG. We need to make clear why it is nonsense to BC gun gifts, loans and many sales (those among acquaintances). Yet, even with respect to sales among strangers, it makes no sense to extend BCs beyond the FFL sales floor so long as straw-buying and prohibited-person buying from FFLs is NOT prosecuted. Peaceful law-abiding PotG will not submit to prosecution by zealot DAs and Assistant US Attorneys who ignore straw-buyers, criminals and crazies.

      It is premature to attempt to “Fix NICS” by “improving” the comprehensiveness of reporting on the mentally ill so long as the criteria are so broad as they are. We find ourselves back examining #1 – the prohibiting criteria. Only a small minority of patients suffering from mental illness represent a threat to public safety materially greater than the general population. We ought to OPPOSE expansion of the reporting efforts UNTIL we achieve meaningful reform of the mental illness prohibiting criteria.

    5. Jeff et al,

      Excellent discussion, right through MarkPA’s comment!
      The 20% of Americans who are suffering some sort of mental illness at any given time are not the problem, nor are the 50% of us who do so sometime during our lifetimes.
      The problem is people with signs of violent potential, mentally ill or (>90%) not and what to do about them.
      The Second Amendment is not the problem. And guns are not.

      Robert B Young, MD
      Doctors for Responsible Gun Ownership (

    6. I wanted to point out that in the article “…is all about limiting an enumerated constitutional right.”
      It is a God given right. All of our RIGHTS were considered God given.
      The Constitution is only spelling out what the various parts of government jobs are and specifying what they ARE NOT permitted.
      If that gets watered down those God given rights are in jeopardy from the government that the Constitution was set to regulate.

    7. Here is a thought ! how about profiling as a tool to fine the crazies among us. all the high profile shooters to date fall into one or two small groups. They are all Liberal, they are all fringe types that are easy to spot. The root of the problem is trying to IDENTIFY who is looney toons and who isn’t. I contend that ALL humans are borderline sane/crazy and what triggers one to move across a fine line is different for different people. I know my line is my family. Harm my family and your best chance of continuing to consume oxygen is to be arrested by the law. Anyone notice the choice of killing being used by ISIS? Burning the Pilot alive and then dumping rubble on him. Study that one and then look at all the killers that select Free Kill Zones for their 15 minutes of fame.

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