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Background checks for guns down from last year, up historically

Background checks for buying guns has dropped off in recent months, but firearms advocates say sales are strong compared with previous years and the decline in background checks is slower in rural states like North Dakota.

Background checks for buying guns has dropped off in recent months, but firearms advocates say sales are strong compared with previous years and the decline in background checks is slower in rural states like North Dakota.

Gun dealers across the country ran roughly 1.74 million background checks in July, about 160,000 fewer than in June and more than 450,000 less than July 2016, according to the FBI's National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS).

Numbers have declined since March, when the figure exceeded 2.43 million. There was a slight dip in the winter, though December had the highest number of background checks for 2016 with 2.77 million.

Checks for this year are on track to be slightly down from last year, but July and overall 2017 numbers are ahead of previous years.

"I think what you saw in 2016 is there were a lot of people who were concerned with the election," Mark Oliva, a spokesman with the National Shooting Sports Foundation in Washington, D.C. "There were a lot of people who believed Hillary Clinton was going to be elected and this was going to put a constraint on their ability to buy firearms."


In North Dakota, the number of background checks in July dropped 12 percent from July 2016, Oliva said. That's compared with 25 percent nationally for the same time period.

North Dakota and Minnesota background check numbers followed national trends of declining from last year but otherwise are ahead of previous years.

It's a sign sales are stabilizing, Oliva said, but sales, and the gun industry as a whole, are "very strong."

"If you look back ... 17 years ago, we're more than double what we were dealing than with in 2000," he said. "We are healthier than we were five or six years ago."

Hard to track

NICS numbers do not represent the number of firearms sold, FBI spokesman Stephen Fischer Jr. wrote in an email. Federal law requires background checks for all purchases at licensed dealers. But some states, including North Dakota, say residents can buy a gun without a background check if they have a concealed weapons permit. North Dakota had 48,700 active concealed carry licenses as of December 2016, the latest numbers from the Attorney General's Office. More than 12,000 of those were issued in 2016.

"Based on varying state laws and purchase scenarios, a one-to-one correlation cannot be made between a firearm background check and a firearm sale," Fischer said.

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) tracks how many guns are manufactured in the U.S. It also tracks the number of registered weapons by state, but it is illegal to keep a database of who owns guns and how many, a spokeswoman said.


Because of that, it is hard to get exact numbers on sales unless gun stores share their information or gun owners give that information to researchers.

The numbers can include background checks for purchasing ammo and equipment as well, Oliva said.

"The background checks ... is probably the closest barometer we can follow from month to month tracking of sales," UND political science professor Robert Wood said. "It's still difficult to really put a pin on exactly where it is at because of the different reporting requirements for each state."

Multiple gun dealers in Grand Forks either declined interviews regarding sales or didn't return requests for comment for this story.

More confidence

Gun purchases can be driven by fear that politicians will enact anti-gun legislation, Wood said. After a brief drop from July 2016 to August (2.2 million to 1.85 million, respectively), the number of background checks increased month to month as the presidential election approached.

More than 27.5 million background checks were conducted last year in the U.S., the most since the NICS started tracking the numbers in November 1998. The most checks ever performed in a month was December 2015 with 3.31 million.

Checks spiked in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks in 2001, mass shootings, and President Barack Obama's election and re-election. Seasonal upticks-hunting season, Christmas-also are reflected in the numbers.


North Dakota's largest years for background checks were nearly 85,000 in 2012 and nearly 86,000 in 2013, according to NICS. Minnesota's highest annual check count was last year.

The number of national checks conducted has been on a steady annual rise since 2002, with the largest jump happening from 2015 to last year-4.39 million or a 16 percent increase.

Oliva said manufacturers feel more confident now that the election is over and President Donald Trump is in office, which may be why the checks seem to be stabilizing. Oliva also noted the change in who is buying guns and that handguns are more popular.

"We're finding they are more urban," he said. "There are more minorities buying. There are more women who are buying. Today's gun buyers are buying for a variety of reasons."

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