Who do background checks stop?

WASHINGTON -- What disqualifies someone from buying a gun?

Background checks are now at the forefront of the debate on guns, but what exactly do they flag? And could they be used to create a national gun registry – as the NRA has repeatedly warned?

The FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) Web site lays out 10 specific federal disqualifiers for a gun purchase. They are (quotes are from FBI):

- having been convicted of a crime punishable by more than one year in prison
- being a fugitive
- being an “unlawful user of or addicted to any controlled substance”
- having “been adjudicated" as having mental health problems or having been committed to a mental institution
- being in the U.S. illegally or having been admitted under a nonimmigrant visa
- having been dishonorably discharged from the military
- having renounced U.S. citizenship
- being subject to a restraining order or having been convicted of a domestic violence offense
- being under indictment for a crime punishable by imprisonment for more than one year

In addition, there are state-specific rules (which account for 0.2 percent of the records on file that would prevent someone from buying a gun) and the “the federally denied persons file.” This is a catch-all for states to report disqualifying information that might not fit into one of the specific categories listed above. This file accounts for 0.34 percent of the total files that could pop up on a background check and result in a gun purchase denial. (A list of how many files fall under each category is here).

That’s the list. People who fall into those categories are the ones who would theoretically be blocked from making purchases at gun shows or over the internet if the background check plan proposed by Sen. Pat Toomey (R., Pa.) and Joe Manchin (D., W.Va.) advances.

Of course, not everyone would be subject to a background check that would flag these issues. Anyone could still obtain a gun from a friend or neighbor or other acquaintance under the Toomey-Manchin plan’s exception for “personal transfers.”

How often are gun purchases denied?

Between Nov. 30, 1998 and the end of 2012, 160,474,702 gun transactions have gone through the federal background check system. As of Dec. 31 the system had denied 987,578 transactions – 0.615 percent.

As for the question of a national “gun registry,” the background check Web site says, “The NICS is not to be used to establish a federal firearm registry.”

Information about background checks that result in an approval – meaning someone clears the background check -- “is destroyed in accordance with NICS regulations.” Those rules say that “all identifying information on allowed transactions” must be destroyed “prior to the start of the next NICS operational day.”