New FBI data show that requiring enhanced background checks for gun purchasers under 21 has stopped hundreds of young adults who shouldn’t have guns from buying them, The Trace reports. Since the rollout began last year through July 11, the FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System, or NICS, conducted 116,349 background checks on potential purchasers between 18 and 20 years old. Of those, 1,100 checks resulted in a denial. And according to the FBI, some 23 percent of those blocked purchases — or 253— wouldn’t have been flagged under the old system. While the standard NICS background check process involves running identifying information through a matrix of databases that contain criminal and mental health records, the enhanced process goes further, requiring NICS to directly contact state and local law enforcement, as well as state and local courts. This proactive outreach aims to uncover potentially disqualifying records that may not have been added to the databases used by NICS, including those held by state and local custodians of mental health records or juvenile courts — information that typically doesn't factor into the standard background check.
The new system, part of last year's bipartisan-backed Safer Communities Act, was the product of a compromise. A proposal to raise the age to 21 to purchase semiautomatic rifles failed, but lawmakers in Congress instead agreed to require the FBI to go deeper than in standard background checks. Like all background checks, the enhanced system only applies when guns are purchased from licensed dealers. According to the Violence Project, from 1966 to the present, the median age of perpetrators of shootings at K-12 schools is 18. And The New York Times reports that six of the country’s nine deadliest mass shootings between 2018 and June 2022 were carried out by people younger than 21. Academics and law enforcement officials have largely attributed the trend to lenient state and federal regulations that allow 18-year-olds to purchase weapons. Indeed, federal age restrictions are relatively lax: Licensed firearm dealers can’t sell handguns to those under 21, but for long guns like rifles and shotguns, the age is 18. And those restrictions only apply to licensed dealers; private sellers can sell handguns to those over 18, and long guns to teens under 18.