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The National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) is administered by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). A NICS check includes a check of three databases maintained by the FBI, including the—
If a NICS check identifies a person as falling within a prohibited category, the FBI advises the Federal Firearms Licensee (FFL) that the transfer is "denied." Individuals can appeal denials and seek the correction of any inaccurate or incomplete information in the FBI databases by either applying to the FBI or the federal or state agency that contributed the information to the FBI.
The NICS Improvement Amendments Act of 2007 (NIAA), P.L. 110-180, was signed into law by the President on January 8, 2008. The NIAA amends the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act of 1993 (the Brady Act) P.L. 103-159, under which the Attorney General established the NICS. The Brady Act requires FFLs to contact the NICS before transferring a firearm to an unlicensed person for information on whether the proposed transferee is prohibited from receiving or possessing a firearm under state or federal law.
The NIAA was enacted in the wake of the April 2007 shooting tragedy at Virginia Tech. The Virginia Tech shooter was able to purchase firearms from an FFL because information about his prohibiting mental health history was not available to the NICS and the system was therefore unable to deny the transfer of the firearms used in the shootings. The NIAA seeks to address the gap in information available to NICS about such prohibiting mental health adjudications and commitments and other prohibiting backgrounds. Filling these information gaps will better enable the system to operate as intended, to keep guns out of the hands of persons prohibited by federal or state law from receiving or possessing firearms.
Please visit the following pages to learn more about BJS criminal record improvement activities in the states and territories.
Promising practices by states for improved record reporting
NICS Funding for 2009-2015
State-by-State Summaries for FY2015 NICS Improvement Amendments Act Grant Awards
NARIP Contact Addresses
The NICS Improvement Amendments Act of 2007 (NIAA), Pub. L. 110-180, was signed into law by the President on January 8, 2008. The NIAA amends the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act of 1993 ("the Brady Act") (Pub. L. 103-159), under which the Attorney General established the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS). The Brady Act requires Federal Firearms Licensees (FFLs) to contact the NICS before transferring a firearm to an unlicensed person for information on whether the proposed transferee is prohibited from receiving or possessing a firearm under state or federal law. The NIAA was a bipartisan effort to strengthen the NICS by increasing the quantity and quality of relevant records accessible to the system.
The NIAA was enacted in the wake of the April 2007 shooting tragedy at Virginia Tech. The Virginia Tech shooter was able to purchase firearms from an FFL because information about his prohibiting mental health history was not available to the NICS and the system was therefore unable to deny the transfer of the firearms used in the shootings. The NICS is a critical tool in keeping firearms out of the hands of prohibited persons, but it is only as effective as the information entered into the databases upon which it relies. The NIAA seeks to address the gap in information available to NICS about such prohibiting mental health adjudications and commitments and other prohibiting backgrounds. Filling these information gaps will better enable the system to operate as intended to keep guns out of the hands of persons prohibited by federal or state law from receiving or possessing firearms.
The NICS is a national system that checks available records in three databases to determine if prospective transferees are disqualified from receiving firearms. It is administered by the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI). A NICS check includes a check of the following three databases that are maintained by the FBI:
When the transferee is not a U.S. citizen, a separate query is run to confirm the transferee's immigration status. If a NICS check identifies a person as falling within a prohibited category, the FBI advises the FFL that the transfer is "denied." Individuals can appeal denials and seek correction of information in the FBI databases by either applying to the FBI or the federal or state agency that contributed the information to the FBI.
The Gun Control Act of 1968, as amended, 18 U.S.C. 921, et seq., establishes the following categories of persons who are prohibited from receiving or possessing a firearm — any person pursuant to 18 U.S.C. 922(g) or (n) who:
Section 922(g)(4), Title 18, United States Code, prohibits the receipt or possession of firearms by an individual who has been "adjudicated as a mental defective" or "committed to a mental institution." Regulations issued by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), 27 C.F.R. § 478.11, define these terms as follows:
Adjudicated as a mental defective.
(1) A determination by a court, board, commission, or other lawful authority that a person, as a result of marked subnormal intelligence, or mental illness, incompetency, condition, or disease:
(2) The term shall include —
Committed to a mental institution. A formal commitment of a person to a mental institution by a court, board, commission, or other lawful authority. The term includes a commitment to a mental institution involuntarily. The term includes commitment for mental defectiveness or mental illness. It also includes commitments for other reasons, such as for drug use. The term does not include a person in a mental institution for observation or a voluntary admission to a mental institution.
No. The NICS does not maintain a database of medical records or information on mental health diagnoses or treatment plans. When a record of a person prohibited from possessing a firearm as a result of mental health issues (i.e., a person who has been involuntarily committed to a mental institution or adjudicated a "mental defective" by a court, board, or other lawful authority) is entered in the NICS Index, the entry contains only a name, other biographic identifiers, like date of birth, and codes for the submitting entity and prohibited category. The NICS Index does not contain medical records or medical information.
When information about such adjudications and commitments is provided to the NICS, the FBI can deny firearm transfers to persons with disqualifying mental health histories, both in the state where the record was created and in other states to which the individual may have subsequently moved.
The information in the NICS is subject to the Privacy Act and the privacy of the information is protected in a number of ways. The only responses provided by the NICS to a request for a NICS check is "Proceed," "Denied" or "Delayed." In cases of a "Denied" response, neither the general prohibiting category nor information about the specific event that places an individual in that prohibited category is provided to the FFL. The individual, however, is able to request information about the reason for the denial from the FBI, and can appeal the denial and seek to correct incomplete or inaccurate information in the system upon which the denial is based.
In addition, as noted above, the information identifying mental health adjudications or commitments contributed by federal and state agencies is maintained in the NICS Index. The regulations governing the NICS limits the use of the NICS Index to: (1) checks under the Brady Act by FFLs of proposed firearms transferees; (2) checks by federal, state, or local criminal justice agencies in connection with the issuance of a firearms-related or explosives-related license or permit; and (3) requests by ATF in connection with civil or criminal law enforcement relating to the federal Gun Control Act (18 U.S.C. Chapter 44) or National Firearms Act (26 U.S.C. Chapter 53). Checks of the NICS Index for general law enforcement purposes are not permitted under the regulations. See 28 CFR. 25.6(j).
The NIAA seeks to improve the information available to the NICS, so that the system can more accurately identify prohibited persons, by:
FOR STATES: The NIAA has provisions that encourage states to meet specified goals for completeness of the records submitted to the Attorney General on individuals prohibited by federal law from possessing firearms. The records covered include automated information needed by the NICS to identify felony convictions, felony indictments, fugitives from justice, drug arrests and convictions, federally prohibiting mental health adjudications and commitments, domestic violence protection orders, and misdemeanor crimes of domestic violence.
The Act provides for a number of incentives for states to meet the goals it sets for greater record completeness.
IN THE FEDERAL SYSTEM: The NIAA creates an independent statutory obligation for federal agencies to report records identifying prohibited persons to the Attorney General no less than quarterly. It also requires that federal agencies that issue prohibiting mental health adjudications or commitments establish a program under which a person subject to such an adjudication or commitment can apply for relief from his or her firearms disability according to standards under 18 U.S.C. 925(c). Additionally, the Act provides that a prohibiting adjudication or commitment issued by a federal agency or department may be nullified in certain instances by a qualified set aside, expungement, release from mandatory treatment, or other specified means.
CHANGE TO THE MENTAL HEALTH PROHIBITOR: Prior to the NIAA, section 922(g)(4) was effectively a lifetime prohibition on possessing firearms by any person "who had been adjudicated a mental defective or who has been committed to a mental institution." The Act, however, provides that when relief is granted under a federal or state relief from disabilities program that meets the requirements of the Act, or when certain automatic relief conditions are met with respect to persons federally adjudicated or committed, the event giving rise to the mental health disability is "deemed not to have occurred" for purposes of the federal firearm prohibition.
There are two conditions that each state must satisfy before being eligible to receive grants:
Before the enactment of the NICS Improvement Act, a person's adjudication as a mental defective or commitment to a mental institution was effectively a lifetime prohibition. Concerns were expressed to Congress about the permanence of this prohibitor and the life-long effect it would have on persons whose mental health adjudication or commitment records would be provided to the NICS under the Act's provisions. To address these concerns, the Act included not only provisions to require or promote the sharing of the existence of information about this disability for use by the NICS, but also provisions that require or authorize the establishment of federal and state programs that allow individuals to seek relief from the federal mental health firearms disability if circumstances warrant. As of September 2015, twenty-nine states have enacted relief programs that have been certified by the state and approved by ATF.
ATF is available to answer questions about whether existing state laws meet the standards contemplated for the state relief from disability programs contemplated in the NICS Improvement Act. ATF is also available to provide technical assistance to states seeking to establish such programs under the Act. Also see State Relief from Disabilities Program Criteria.
The Act requires the Attorney General to establish for use by the states a methodology to calculate estimates of the total number of records in each of the subcategories of records subject to the grant program's reporting requirements. The Justice Department's Bureau of Justice of Statistics (BJS) developed a data collection instrument setting forth this methodology to send to each state's NCHIP point of contact agency. In doing so, BJS coordinated with representatives of the state criminal justice information repositories, state court administrators, the National Center for State Courts, the National Association of State Mental Health Directors, and others to obtain input on state record-keeping practices to help inform the development of a methodology. The previous data collection, State Estimates of Available Records Information Collection, (PDF 110K) approved by the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), was sent to each state for completion. To date, BJS has received estimates from 47 jurisdictions. A Frequently Asked Questions (PDF 47K) document was also available to assist respondents in completing the form. Three years of data has been collected to date. The NICS Improvement Amendments Act: State Records Estimates Development and Validation Project, Year Three Report provides information on the results of the third year of collection. BJS is continuing to work with state and federal partners to explore revised methodologies to assess record completeness and availability.
FOR STATE AND TRIBAL GOVERMENTS: Section 103 of the Act, regarding implementation assistance to the states, provides that the grants "shall be used by the States and Indian tribal governments, in conjunction with units of local government and State and local courts, to establish or upgrade information and identification technologies for firearms eligibility determinations."
The law provides that grant to states or Indian tribes may only be used to —
FOR STATE COURT SYSTEMS: Section 301 of the Act, regarding grants to state court systems for the improvement of automation and transmittal of disposition records, provides that grants shall be made to each state, consistent with state plans for the integration, automation, and accessibility of criminal history records, for use by the state court system to improve automation and transmittal to federal and state repositories of:
The law provides that the amounts granted shall be used by the state court system only to —
Recognizing the need to automate state record systems that contribute most of the relevant information to the FBI record systems that would be checked by the NICS, the Brady Act established NCHIP, a program of grants to be used by the states to create or improve computerized criminal history record systems, assist in the transmittal of criminal records for use by the NICS, and improve access to the NICS. NCHIP is administered by the Department's Office of Justice Programs through the Bureau of Justice Statistics. At the state level, NCHIP grants are administered by state agencies designated by the Governor for this purpose. Since 1995, NCHIP has provided over $632 million in grants to the states to improve the automation of their record systems that contribute to the FBI information used in NICS checks.
Notwithstanding these efforts under NCHIP and the tremendous progress the state and federal criminal justice information repositories have made in record automation since 1995, the databases checked by the FBI are still missing significant percentages of relevant data that originate in the states, including final dispositions of records of arrests for prohibiting offenses, records of convictions for domestic violence misdemeanor offenses, and information identifying persons with prohibiting domestic violence protection orders or with disqualifying mental health adjudications and commitments.
The NICS Improvement Act grant programs do not supplant NCHIP. Rather, the NICS Improvement Act grants are to be made in a manner "consistent with" and "in accordance with" NCHIP. The major difference from NCHIP is that the NICS Improvement Act grants may only be used for specified purposes that are related to achieving the completeness goals for the records directly related to NICS checks. In addition, the NICS Improvement Act authorizes a separate grant program for funding that is dedicated to be used by state courts systems, where most of the disposition information missing from the national repositories originates.
Twenty-two states received NICS Improvement Amendments Act funding in FY 2015 totaling over $22 million.
For more information on state-specific projects go to State-by-State Information.
This report is available in PDF format.
|Data Collections & Surveys|
|Publications & Products|
|National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) Press release on awarded amounts to eight state agencies to improve the quality, completeness, and accessibility of records available under the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS).|
|Terms & Definitions|
|Central Repository||The database (or the agency housing the database) that maintains criminal history records on all State offenders. Records include fingerprint files and files containing identification segments and notations of arrests and dispositions. The central repository is generally responsible for State-level identification of arrestees, and commonly serves as the central control terminal for contact with FBI record systems. Inquiries from local agencies for a national record check (for criminal justice or firearm check purposes) are routed to the FBI via the central repository. Although usually housed in the Department of Public Safety, the central repository may be maintained in some States by the State Police or some other State agency.|
|Criminal History Record Information (CHRI) or Criminal History Record Information System||A record (or the system maintaining such records) that includes individual identifiers and describes an individual's arrests and subsequent dispositions. Criminal history records do not include intelligence or investigative data or sociological data such as drug use history. CHRI systems usually include information on juveniles if they are tried as adults in criminal courts. Most, however, do not include data describing involvement of an individual in the juvenile justice system. All data in CHRI systems are usually backed by fingerprints of the record subjects to provide positive identification. State legislation varies concerning disclosure of criminal history records for noncriminal justice purposes.|
|Criminal Justice Information Services Advisory Policy Board (APB)||Successor to the National Crime Information Center (NCIC) APB, the CJIS APB is comprised of 30 criminal justice officials who provide policy input to guide the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) in the administration of its CJIS Division. The CJIS Division administers the NCIC, the Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) Program, the Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification System (IAFIS), and other information system programs determined by the FBI director to have some relationship with these programs.|
|Data Quality||The extent to which criminal history records are complete, accurate and timely. In addition, accessibility sometimes is considered a data quality factor. The key concern in data quality is the completeness of records and the extent to which records include dispositions as well as arrest and charge information. Other concerns include the timeliness of data reporting to State and Federal repositories, the timeliness of data entry by the repositories, the readability of criminal history records and the ability to have access to the records when necessary.|
|Federal Firearm Licensee (FFL)||A federally licensed firearms dealer, is licensed by ATF to engage in the business of manufacturing, importing, or dealing in firearms. An FFL must be enrolled with the FBI NICS Section in order to request a NICS background check.|