The White House just announced new executive actions aimed at making the system of background checks for gun purchases more robust. Previous executive actions, however, haven't lead to any significant increase in failed applications.
Friday's announcement does two things: It clarifies language around what constitutes "commitment to a mental institution" and it is providing allowance under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) for institutions to submit necessary data to the FBI for inclusion in its National Instant Criminal Background Check System, or NICS. (The Huffington Post has a good look at what that first change could mean.) The goal of improving this data, of course, is to do a better job ensuring that those who shouldn't get guns are weeded out during the background check process.
Last year, Obama took other actions intended at making it harder for criminals and the mentally ill to get guns. Among other things, he "directed federal agencies to make all relevant records" available to NICS, resulting in what the administration hails as "nearly a 23% increase from the number of records" federal agencies had previously provided. Nonetheless, those added records appear to have had little to no effect in the number of people whose applications were rejected.
Each month, the FBI releases data on the number of background checks it has performed each month since NICS went into effect in 1998. It also keeps a running tally of the number of background check applications it has rejected over that entire time period. The most recent tally shows that over a million applications have been declined in total, more than half of which were submitted on behalf of people who'd been previously convicted of crimes. What the FBI doesn't provide is a look at the month-by-month breakdown of rejected applications, making it hard to determine if Obama's 2013 data change had much effect.
We reached out to the FBI in search of monthly data and were told that the cumulative data was all that is available. But then realized we had a way of determining the month-by-month figures: backups of the site from the Internet Archive. We pulled the tallies for nine months since March of 2012, including January, March, November, and December of last year.
Application denials by month
We took the data from the months for which we had data and determined how much it had changed since the previous report. For example, by August 31, 2012, there were 951,418 denied applications in total. At the end of the month prior, there were 945,077 — meaning that 6,341 applications were denied that August. For months that were missing data, we took that difference and divided by the number of months in between the two data points. Which gave us the graph above, showing cumulative rejections split between those rejected for criminal convictions (dark blue) and all other reasons (light blue). (Months marked with an asterisk are ones for which we interpolated data.)
It appears at first glance that there were more rejections in 2013. Overall, the per-month rejections last year were higher than those from 2012 (except the large spike over the winter of 2012-2013).
But that data is rather misleading.
Application denials as a function of applications
Background check applications largely (but not entirely) correlate to the number of gun purchases in the country. That big spike mentioned above came in December 2012 and January 2013 and was largely due to concerns about new gun control measures following Newtown and the 2012 presidential election. Gun sales settled down, but the number of background checks the FBI completed ended up higher each month in 2013 than in 2012 through June.
When you compare the number of rejected applications to the number of applications each month, you get the red line on the graph above — the percentage of rejections for each month for which we have data. (The blue bars are the number of new applications since the prior month for which we have data.) The average number of rejections is 0.42 percent, less than one application in every 200 submitted. It was 0.42 percent in August 2012. It was 0.36 in January 2013. It was 0.44 percent last month.
President Obama's goal was never that executive actions should be the mechanism for improving background checks. He and his administration wanted comprehensive reform, a proposal that died in the Senate last April. What he's able to do without Congress' support certainly isn't what he might have hoped.