How Does the National Instant Criminal Background Check System Work?

Criminal background checks

The National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) conducts background checks on people who want to own a firearm or explosive, as required by law. Because this system is different from standard criminal background checks, there is a lot of interest in understanding how NICS works.

What is the National Instant Criminal Background Check System?

NICS was established by the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act (Brady Act) requirements. This Act required a national namecheck system for federal firearms licensees (FFLs). Required licensees include gun shop owners, pawnshop dealers, and retailers that sell firearms. NICS was developed by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives and state and local law enforcement agencies. The FBI currently operates it.

Participation in NICS varies across the nation. A breakdown of the participation is as follows:

  • Most states (37) and all U.S. territories are non-point-of-contact states, where the FFL must contact the FBI directly for all firearm background checks.
  • Thirteen states are full point-of-contact states, in which the FFLs contact the state for all firearm background checks. States with this option include Hawaii, California, Utah, Nevada, Colorado, Oregon, Illinois, Tennessee, Florida, Virginia, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, and New Jersey.
  • Four states are partial point-of-contact states. In these states, the FFLs contact eth state for handguns and contact the FBI for long gun background checks. The four states with this requirement are Washington, New Hampshire, Wisconsin, and Maryland.
  • Two states also have a partial point-of-contact requirement. These states are Nebraska and North Carolina. The state-issued handgun permit is used for handguns in these states, and FFLs must contact the FBI for long gun background checks.

This information helps determine who must be contacted based upon geography and gun type for the correct background checks.

How Does NICS work?

An FFL is required to contact the FBI for a NICS background check to determine whether a potential buyer is legally eligible or prohibited from owning a firearm. Only FFL holders have access and can retain NICS records. There are several steps to obtaining this background check, including:

  1. The FFL dealer must have the potential customer complete an ATF Form 4473 (firearm transaction record) when they are interested in purchasing a firearm. The buyer may bundle several firearms in one transaction. However, a new ATF Form 4473 is required for each transaction.
  2. The FFL must then contact NICS either by phone or E-Check. This communication allows the FFL to relay the buyer’s information to the FBI. The only entities that can request the NICS about running a name check are FFLs.
  3. The FBI and NICs run a background check on the buyer across multiple databases. The results are frequently available within minutes but can take up to several days. If the name comes back with no flags or matches in the databases, NICS will inform the FFL that they may proceed with the proposed transaction. If the name does have a match, further investigation is required. If the FBI fails to let the FFL know of a decision within three days, the FFL may move forward with the sale. If a decision is reached that the buyer is prohibited, the FBI contacts the ATF to retrieve the firearm from the purchaser.

While this process seems very straightforward, there are multiple reasons an individual may be denied a firearm after a NICS background check. Common reasons include:

  • Conviction of a crime with a sentence that exceeds one year in prison.
  • Fugitive states that results from a legal sentence where the individual is on the run.
  • The conviction with one or more arrests for the use or possession of controlled substances within the past five years.
  • Illegal immigrant status
  • The renouncement of U.S. citizenship
  • Dishonorable discharge from the United States military
  • The placement of a protective order or restraining order against a partner or child.
  • The conviction of a misdemeanor using physical violence or a weapon on a defendant that is a spouse, relative, ex-spouse, child, or other.

The NICS system is generally available 17 hours daily, seven days a week. It is generally available for all holidays, except Christmas. The NICS E-Check system is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. All calls may be monitored or recorded for any authorized purposes.

NICS background checks are used for a very specific purpose – to determine eligibility for the purchase or ownership of a firearm. Therefore, these checks are not as in-depth as most criminal background checks. To learn more about criminal background checks, contact USA Fact today.

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