WASHINGTON – The FBI is handling a surge in background checks this year after a series of mass shootings has renewed calls for more restrictive gun laws.
Some of the biggest spikes came in August and September after attacks in El Paso and Odessa, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, that left 38 people dead.
Past spikes in background checks, a rough barometer of gun sales, have been driven by fears that lawmakers would tighten gun laws.
“People respond to what they perceive as threats to their (Second Amendment) rights, and this has been going on since August,” said Larry Keane, general counsel for the firearms industry trade group National Shooting Sports Foundation.
While the FBI does not track gun sales – multiple firearms can be purchased in a single transaction – its National Instant Criminal Background Check System is a way to gauge market demand.
For the first time since the bureau began conducting checks in 1998, the number of monthly checks has not fallen below 2 million this year.
With the holiday shopping season approaching, the number of background checks for 2019 could break the one-year record of 27.5 million, according to bureau records.
Analysts said the numbers suggest the industry may beemerging from the “Trump slump” that followed the election of the pro-gun president.
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Black Friday has traditionally been one of the busiest days for gun dealers – and for FBI employees who determine whether prospective buyers should be prohibited from purchasing firearms. Two years ago, the FBI was flooded with a record 203,086 background check requests the day after Thanksgiving, a single-day record.
“The rising numbers may be a symptom of a reawakened gun owner community,” said Robert Spitzer, a political science professor at the State University of New York in Cortland who has written extensively on guns. “How far you can go in that direction is yet to be determined, but it does suggest how flexible the market is for gun sales.”
National Security: FBI struggling to keep up
In 2016, when the Obama administration sought tougher gun control legislation, the FBI was inundated with requests for background checks. That’s the year the bureau processed a record number of checks.
This year, the FBI has requested additional money and personnel to deal with the workload.
FBI Director Christopher Wray, in testimony earlier this year before a House committee, cited increasing background checks in his request for 40 new positions and $4.2 million. Some of the money would be used for new equipment.
“The FBI is currently processing a record number of checks,” Wray told lawmakers.
The FBI has tried to deal with the volume by reassigning nearly 300 people at various times, which has caused backlogs elsewhere, according to the budget request.
In a written statement, the FBI said it has sought to make the background check system more efficient, but “the volume of calls (and) complexity of the work” have forced it to request more resources.
The FBI has been criticized for problems with its background check system, most recently in 2017, when the Air Force failed to provide the FBI with the criminal record of a man who went on to massacre 26 people at a Texas church. Devin Kelley’s conviction of domestic assault at a court martial a few years earlier would have barred him from purchasing the rifle used in the attack.
Earlier this month, the Justice Department reported that the military and other federal agencies had increased their submissions of criminal and mental health records to the background check system by more than 6% in the past year. A 2018 law passed in the wake of the Texas church shooting, known as the Fix NICS Act, requires agencies to make sure they share such information with the FBI.
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Gun check numbers need only remain steady for the rest of the year to break the record. The FBI recorded nearly 23 million checks through the end of October. But the political calendar and unrelenting gun violence is likely to keep up demand for firearms.
In September, former Texas congressman Beto O’Rourkecaused perhaps the biggest stir during a Democratic presidential debate when he called for mandatory buybacks of popular semi-automatic rifles used in some recent attacks, including the El Paso assault. That shooting left 22 dead at a local Walmart.
“Hell, yes, we’re going to take your AR-15, your AK-47,” O’Rourke said. “We’re not going to allow it to be used against our fellow Americans anymore.”
Matt Boggs, co-owner of Alpha Dog Firearms, said O’Rourke’s comment gave him the idea to slash prices for a weeklong “Beto Special.” He sold more than 400 firearms during the sale; typically he sells about 100 guns in a month.
“We did it because someone had the audacity to come after a U.S. citizen’s rights,” Boggs said in an interview with USA TODAY. “A lot of (military) veterans are our customers. It had a reaction.”
Two months after the gun rush, Boggs said, visitors from New York, Texas, California and other states stop by to express their support.
“We have veterans coming back from Afghanistan and Japan dropping by to say they had heard about what we did,” Boggs said.
O’Rourke is out of the presidential race, but there is no sign that gun politics will leave the stage with him. Michael Bloomberg, who has poured millions of dollars into campaigns advocating for tighter controls on firearms, formally announced his candidacy for the Democratic nomination Sunday.
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Several of the leading candidates, including former Vice President Joe Biden, South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, have called for measures including bans on assault-style weapons, universal background checks and voluntary gun buybacks.
“If Bloomberg jumps in with both feet, that could move (gun sales) further along,” Keane said. “There is such a stark contrast between the two (parties), guns will be just as important in 2020 as they were in 2016.”
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