How 2016 became the biggest year for background checks, gun sales

With a GOP-controlled Congress and a gun-friendly president in the White House poised to push national pro-gun legislation, Guns.com took a deep dive into the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s background check system, the country’s mechanism for preventing criminals from directly purchasing guns from firearms retailers. In our snapshot of 2016 — starting at daily totals and moving into year-over-year trends — we pick out some of the social, economic and political events that likely shaped the federal background check system’s big year.

The FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System processed 27.4 million checks in 2016 — the most in the system’s 18-year history.

The checks serve as an industry proxy for gun sales, though analysts caution the number is an imperfect measurement because not every background check results in a gun sold. Sales can be canceled, a single background check can be run for the purchase of multiple guns and concealed carry permit background checks don’t typically indicate a weapon was sold.

NICS processed 27.4 million checks in 2016, including an estimated 15.8 million sales. (Graph: Guns.com)

NICS processed 27.4 million checks in 2016, including an estimated 15.8 million sales.

Guns.com adjusts for these caveats by removing permit checks from monthly and annual tallies. The adjusted NICS figure, similar to what the National Shooting Sports Foundation releases every month, gives a more accurate estimate of total guns sold.

Federal data detailing total daily background checks reveal a few patterns worth mentioning: background checks peak on Fridays and Saturdays before dipping down to weekly lows on Sundays. Unusual spikes throughout the week cannot be confirmed as the result of any one current event, but some do show correlation to the political climate of the moment.

A month before NICS’s biggest year ever kicked off, the U.S. suffered its deadliest terrorist attack since Sept. 11, 2001, when Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik gunned down 14 people and injured 22 others during a company holiday party at the Inland Regional Center in San Bernardino on Dec. 2, 2015.

The political aftermath saw a boost in then-presidential candidate Donald Trump’s poll numbers and the gun industry’s historically busy holiday season. Daily NICS checks soared over 130,000 in the two weekends following the shooting as congressional lawmakers offered little more than prayers and a renewed push from Democrats to expand background check laws, again.

Four days into the new year, President Barack Obama offered an emotional plea at the White House, begging Congress to act on gun control legislation — striking the same tone his administration adopted in the wake of the Sandy Hook shooting three years earlier.

“Each time this comes up, we are fed the excuse that common-sense reforms like background checks might not have stopped the last massacre, or the one before that, or the one before that, so why bother trying?” Obama said. “I reject that thinking.”

“We know we can’t stop every act of violence, every act of evil in the world. But maybe we could try to stop one act of evil, one act of violence,” he added.

In what he called an attempt to curb gun violence, Obama issued executive actions strengthening penalties against firearms dealers — big and small — for forgoing federal background checks during transactions. He also pledged funding for an additional 200 ATF agents and investigators to increase enforcement of existing gun laws.

Year 2015 adjusted for seasonality.

Year 2015 adjusted for seasonality.

It’s from these orders the Social Security Administration began reporting to NICS recipients with mental health issues impacting their ability to manage their own benefits. The president urged states to bolster record reporting to NICS for those adjudicated mentally ill, convicted of a felony, or otherwise prohibited from owning a gun.

“I mean, think about it. We all believe in the First Amendment, the guarantee of free speech, but we accept that you can’t yell ‘fire’ in a theater,” Obama said as he explained his support for background checks and other gun control measures.

“We understand there are some constraints on our freedom in order to protect innocent people,” he continued. “We cherish our right to privacy, but we accept that you have to go through metal detectors before being allowed to board a plane. It’s not because people like doing that, but we understand that that’s part of the price of living in a civilized society.”

The first week of January 2016 proved busy for background checks, with dealers processing over 100,000 applications on four of seven days, including 100,964 the day after Obama’s speech. On Friday, Jan. 8, 2016, more than 107,000 background checks were submitted to NICS — a level unsurpassed for the rest of the month.

Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia died in his sleep at a Texas ranch on Feb. 13, 2016, leaving behind a contentious vacancy on the bench Democrats sought to fill while Obama still occupied the White House.

Scalia’s most notable opinion in his three decades on the court came in District of Columbia v. Heller — a case brought by licensed security officer Dick Heller who argued the city’s handgun ban infringed on his constitutional rights to keep and bear arms for self-defense.

Scalia, a conservative who favored a literal interpretation of the Constitution, opined in the 5-4 landmark ruling, “whatever the reason, handguns are the most popular weapon chosen by Americans for self-defense in the home, and a complete prohibition of their use is invalid.”

The National Rifle Association and other pro-gun groups would eventually hang their support for Trump on the Republican nominee’s ability to preserve the balance of the court and protect the Heller decision.

February’s background checks peaked for the month in the three days leading up to Scalia’s death, reaching a high point of more than 121,000 on Feb. 12, 2016, according to federal data.

Later that month, two mass shootings unfolded in the Midwest just five days apart: the Kalamazoo shooting spree on Feb. 20 that left four dead and the Hesston, Kansas shooting at a lawn equipment factory on Feb. 25 that killed three and wounded 14.

March generated 2.5 million background checks, up 25 percent. The adjusted figure jumped 8 percent, with 1.3 million checks.

Historical trends for background checks indicate a gradual dropping off of NICS applications throughout the spring, though two days in March topped 100,000.

Checks

Bucking tradition, Tuesday, March 22, 2016 was the busiest day all month for background checks with more than 108,000 applications submitted to NICS. The following Friday recorded nearly 20,000 less checks, according to federal data.

Entering the slow season for the year, April set a record for the busiest April in the system’s history. With a 26 percent increase, NICS processed 2.1 million checks, including 1.1 million possible sales.

Despite ranking as the busiest April in NICS history, daily totals fluctuated from a low of just over 37,700 on the fourth Sunday of the month to a high of 91,860 just five days later.

May, the slowest month for 2016, still saw an 18 percent jump from the prior year and raked in 937,833 possible sales.

On May 26, Republican primary candidate Donald Trump secured the 1,237 delegates needed to clinch the party’s nomination — and the endorsement of the NRA.

The endorsement would prove key in drumming up support for the controversial nominee — who, if elected, would choose a replacement for Scalia. Up until the election, the NRA would spend more than $25 million on ad campaigns promoting Trump’s potential to “protect” the Supreme Court and the Heller decision.

Democratic primary candidate Hillary Clinton said during a speaking engagement earlier in the election cycle that “the Supreme Court is wrong on the Second Amendment, and I am going to make that case every chance I get.”

Daily background checks didn’t fluctuate much throughout the month, topping at 78,452 the day after Trump secured the nomination — a Friday, typically the busiest sales day of the week.

In the early morning hours of June 12, a gunman opened fire inside a gay nightclub in Orlando, killing 49 and wounding 53 others. Long gun checks in the wake of the attack jumped 118,000 over June 2015 totals. Gun dealers told media outlets sales for AR-style rifles increased as fears over congressional tightening of firearm regulations could come to fruition — much like what was attempted in the wake of the Sandy Hook shooting.

Average daily background checks surged 31 percent in the week following the shooting. Checks completed on Friday, June 17, fell just short of 103,000 — 28,000 more than the preceding Friday.

Years 2015 and 2014 are adjusted for seasonality.

Years 2015 and 2014 adjusted for seasonality.

Congress, for its part, didn’t delay on the amped-up rhetoric. House Democrats staged a 25-hour sit-in on the chamber floor the week after the shooting as a doomed proposal blocking gun sales to those listed on the government’s no-fly list failed to pass the 60-vote threshold in the Senate.

“By sitting in, we’re really standing up for the rest of America,” Rep. John Lewis, D-GA, told NBC News. “It’s not a struggle that lasts for one day, one week, one month, one year.”

“We’re going to win,” he added. “We’re going to win big.”

House Speaker Paul Ryan called the sit-in a “political stunt” and assured reporters he had no plans to bring up gun control proposals for a vote anytime soon.

The political reverberations of the San Bernardino attack and the nightclub shooting in Orlando hit state legislatures in July.

California Gov. Jerry Brown signed a package of legislation drafted in the wake of the December 2015 San Bernardino shooting. One of the new regulations outlaws guns outfitted with bullet buttons — a magazine quick-release mechanism operated with a small tool. The tip of a bullet is usually the most convenient. The state experienced a 26 percent surge in long gun checks for the month of July and a 71 percent increase over 2015.

Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey, inspired by the Orlando shooting, issued a notice warning gun owners and retailers alike her office would crackdown on sales of “copycat” assault weapons — often marketed as “state compliant” versions of outlawed guns, including the Colt AR-15 and the Kalashnikov AK-47 — in an enforcement move she says the law supports.

The move sent residents flocking to firearms dealers, with state data recording 2,549 rifles sold the same day as Healey’s announcement.

Likewise, data compiled from NICS shows background checks for long gun sales spiked 67 percent in July at 5,108.

This month, two police shootings unfolded in the South — the July 7 sniper attack on Dallas law enforcement patrolling a Black Lives Matter protest that killed five officers and the July 17 ambush in Baton Rouge that left three more officers dead.

August’s total checks jumped by a slight 7 percent, generating 1.9 million, but estimated sales saw a much more significant increase of 17 percent, or 1.2 million checks.

Yet, the NSSF declined to release monthly analysis of NICS data, citing reporting bugs in the FBI’s new computer system. FBI confirms some state reporting anomalies led to higher-than-usual background check numbers. The association eventually released its adjusted August total of 1.2 million.

Year 2015 has been adjusted for seasonality.

Year 2015 adjusted for seasonality

California’s impending bullet button ban continued influencing long gun checks statewide, with August 2016 totals up 61 percent over 2015.

Daily checks inexplicably spiked on Wednesday, Aug. 10 at 122,826 — 92 percent higher than the preceding Wednesday and more than double the checks performed a week later.

In September, background checks rebounded after an uneven August. That month registered the biggest September on record with an 11 percent increase, generating just shy of 2 million checks. That included an 8 percent bump in estimated sales, with 1.6 million.

On Friday, Sept. 23, Arcan Cetin opened fire at the Cascade Mall in rural Burlington, Washington, about 67 miles north of Seattle, killing five.

Media reports later revealed Cetin tried to buy a large caliber handgun from a dealer in Island County just two hours before the shootings.

Cetin stole the .22-caliber Ruger hunting rifle and a 25-round magazine from his stepfather to use in the attack.

The month’s busiest day for background checks came a week later on Sept. 30, when dealers processed 97,853 applications.

Presidential elections have long influenced gun sales nationwide — a historical trend many firearms retailers big and small say they count on to drum up sales in the weeks before the election.

Gunmakers and retailers alike unveiled pre-election sales in the weeks before Nov. 8, offering deals on ammunition and semi-automatic weapons.

Even privately-owned gun shops, like Westside Armory in Las Vegas, jumped on the bandwagon with its attention-grabbing “Crooked Hillary” sale.

Cameron Hopkins, owner of Westside Armory, said the hype around gun control under a potential Hillary Clinton presidency is great for business.

“We absolutely recognize that when Hillary Clinton is the next president, gun prices are going to go up,” he said during an Oct. 18 interview with Guns.com. “We want to make everyone aware that there will be much more gun control and there will be a panic wave, just like when Obama was elected in 2008 and 2012. It’s just simple economics.”

Clinton’s support for expanded background checks, closing “loopholes” in online and gun show sales and her desire to repeal a 2005 law shielding gun manufacturers from frivolous lawsuits made gun rights advocates wary.

But it was the potential for her to tilt the scales of the Supreme Court by nominating a liberal, anti-gun justice capable of overturning the landmark Heller case that encouraged the NRA to pour more than $25 million into Republican nominee Donald Trump’s campaign and sent congressional Republicans scrambling to protect the down ballot races often threatened by Trump’s incendiary remarks.

Daily background check totals picked up in October, with an average daily total of 75,275 — 13 percent higher than September and the largest daily average in six months.

In November, 2016 officially became the biggest year ever for background checks, topping 24.7 million as of Nov. 30 and exceeding the 2015 total by more than 1.6 million, a 7 percent increase overall. On average, NICS processed more than 85,000 checks per day, according to federal data.

The month also saw arguably the biggest political upset in history when NRA-backed Trump defeated Clinton, quelling concerns over her gun control-heavy platform that advocated for universal background checks, an “assault weapons” ban and the repeal of the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act, a 2005 law granting immunity for gun manufacturers and sellers when their products are used in the commission of a crime.

Voters in California, Nevada and Washington approved ballot measures regulating background checks, ammunition sales and the definition of who can legally own a firearm.

California’s Proposition 63 — a handful of gun control provisions enacted in July in response to the San Bernardino shooting — requires background checks for ammunition sales, bans large-capacity magazines, mandates reporting of stolen weapons and ammunition to law enforcement and adds those convicted of stealing firearms to the list of persons prohibited from owning a gun.

The state’s impending “bullet button” ban spurred a historic surge in long gun background checks. Dealers processed 82,554 applications for long guns through NICS, a 57 percent increase over November 2015 and a 34 percent jump from October.

Washington’s Initiative 1491 allows courts to issue “extreme risk protection orders” to prevent persons deemed “a significant danger to themselves or others” from accessing firearms.

Nevada’s Question 1 — narrowly approved by less than 10,000 votes — mandates background checks for most private sales and transfers of firearms.

Maine voters rejected a near-identical ballot measure, Question 3, on universal background checks. Both initiatives received substantial funding from New York City billionaire and staunch gun control advocate Michael Bloomberg.

Year 2015 on the top graph has been adjusted for seasonality.

Year 2015 on the top graph adjusted for seasonality.

Despite a flurry of media reports predicting a slowdown in gun sales during its historically busiest season, NICS set a new daily total record of 185,713 on Black Friday, Nov. 25.

Three days later, OSU student Abdul Razak Ali Artan plowed his vehicle through a group of students before getting out and knifing bystanders, injuring 11. A campus police officer shot and killed Artan two minutes into the attack. The incident sparked nationwide conversation about campus carry laws and the value of concealed weapons in thwarting violent public attacks.

December, while still busy, was the only month of 2016 to see a decrease in checks. They dipped 16 percent overall, generating 2.7 million, and estimated sales fell by 17 percent, a total of 1.8 million.

Still, Dec. 12-18 cracked FBI’s top 10 busiest weeks, coming in at number eight. It’s the only 2016 week to do so this year.

The daily average for NICS falls just short of 90,000.

California’s impending bullet button ban continued driving sales of long guns. The state logged more background checks in December than any other month on record amidst reports of gun store owners noticing a flurry of sales ahead of the ban, which took effect that month.

The Golden State had 298,161 background checks in December, second only to Kentucky, which averaged more than 300,000 checks each month in 2016, and consistently has the most checks of any other state, federal data shows.