Attention turns to NICS appeals backlog as firearm sales ebb

With signs that a historic swell in gun sales and associated background checks may be tapering, the federal government may soon tackle a logjam of denial appeals.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System is currently working voluntary appeals dating back to August 2015 — for individuals denied 18 months ago. However, it hasn’t always been like that. In September 2015, the average delay was three months.

The change came when the nearly 70 examiners dedicated to appeals were reassigned to assist in running initial criminal background checks because of surges in gun sales in October 2015. Since then the delay has grown, despite executive action to expand NICS’s workforce to meet increasingly robust sales figures, leaving appeals to stagnate.

“That doesn’t fly in any place except government,” Stephen Stamboulieh, an attorney who has handled several lingering appeals cases in federal court, told Guns.com. “I couldn’t make that proclamation in court, ‘Sorry, Your Honor, I’m just so backed up.’ They judge would say, ‘That’s not my problem. It’s your problem.'”

Now, with a gun-friendly Republican president in office, early signs hint at a decline in firearms sales. Last month, gun checks declined nearly 24 percent when compared to January 2016, a significant decrease. As the theory goes, with fewer NICS examiners needed for initial checks, more can shift back to processing appeals.

This month, NICS restored their appeals website, taken down last July. Officials with the FBI say the exact number of examiners processing appeals and the pending appeal backlog varies daily, but there is a light at the end of the tunnel.

“The NICS Examiners are cross-trained to be utilized on various work functions as the NICS Section workload dictates,” FBI spokesperson Stephen G. Fischer Jr. told Guns.com. “The NICS Appeal Services Team currently processes appeals as the incoming primary background check volume dictates. As the incoming transaction volume decreases, there will be an increase in appeal processing to effectively work to reduce the current backlog.”

Gun industry insiders agree with the concept that, as sales moderate and stabilize from the peak of 2016 — the highest year by far — NICS will be able to work on the backlog of appeals.

“NICS had to make difficult decisions about how best to utilize their resources,” Lawrence Keane, senior vice president and general counsel of the National Shooting Sports Foundation, told Guns.com. “We would not fault them for prioritizing the processing new checks.”