Using National Instant Criminal Background Check Data for Gun Policy Analysis

A Discussion of Available Data and Their Limitations

by Sierra Smucker, Max Griswold, Amanda Charbonneau, Rose Kerber, Terry L. Schell, Andrew R. Morral

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Among researchers, policymakers, and advocates, momentum is growing to better understand the impact of firearm laws on a variety of outcomes (e.g., suicide, crime, defensive gun use, homicide). There is also a growing interest in data that can shed light on these relationships. One source of these data is the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS). This system includes information used in background checks, the number and type of background checks processed, and details on the number of and reason for denials when NICS finds that an individual is prohibited from purchasing a firearm.

The RAND Corporation launched the Gun Policy in America initiative in January 2016 with the goal of creating objective, factual resources for policymakers and the public on the effects of gun laws. As part of this mission, researchers investigated a variety of data sources that could help shed light on key questions about whether and how gun laws affect a variety of important public health and criminal justice outcomes.

In this tool, researchers provide detailed information about data associated with NICS and discuss the data's strengths and weaknesses for various gun policy evaluation objectives. The researchers also outline the substantial limitations to interpreting these data to assist researchers in this field. Finally, they provide these data to researchers to encourage further exploration and evaluation of how NICS data might be used for policy analysis.

Table of Contents

  • Chapter One


  • Chapter Two

    NICS Counts of Background Checks

  • Chapter Three

    NICS Denials and Indices

  • Chapter Four

    A New Compilation of Background Check Data

  • Appendix A

    State Policies That Affect NICS Data

  • Appendix B

    Prohibiting Events in the NICS Indices

Research conducted by

This research was sponsored by Arnold Ventures and conducted by the Justice Policy Program within RAND Social and Economic Well-Being.

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