Everything You Need to Know About Federal Background Checks (2022)

In the United States, anybody who wants to buy a gun from a federally licensed firearms dealer (FFL) is subject to a background check. Since 1998, when the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, or NICS, went online, the Federal Bureau of Investigation has processed more than 320 million of them.

The overwhelming majority of gun background checks take just minutes to clear the would-be buyer. Only 2 percent result in a rejection because of a disqualifying record in the shopper’s personal history.

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And then there are the people who slip through the cracks and obtain guns they should have been barred from possessing — sometimes with deadly consequences. The perpetrators of February’s workplace shooting in Aurora, Illinois; the church massacres in Sutherland Springs, Texas, and Charleston, South Carolina; and the 2007 rampage at Virginia Tech each had a history that banned them from owning firearms. Yet none were stopped, because of omissions and loopholes in the system.

It’s such cases that expose the hidden complexities of NICS, and the importance of each element functioning the way that it should.

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Given the central role that background checks play in balancing individual Americans’ gun rights and our shared public safety, it’s worth investing a few minutes to understand how they work.

I walk into a licensed gun store and ask to buy a gun. What happens next?

You’ll have to complete Form 4473, which includes 16 questions relating to your background, drug use, and criminal history. The gun store will then contact NICS online or by phone and supply your answers, and your Social Security number.

What does the FBI look for in a background check?

Anything that makes a person too high-risk to possess lethal firepower, in the eyes of the law. Those include criminal and mental health history, dishonorable military discharges, unlawful immigration status, an open warrant, a documented history of domestic violence, and drug use.

Felony convictions are the most common reason for the gun background check system to reject an applicant, resulting in 865,910 denials during the 21 years that NICS has been in operation. More than 189,000 fugitives, 212,000 domestic offenders, and 148,000 unlawful drug users have also been blocked. The bar for denying someone on mental health grounds is very high, requiring that a person has been declared unsound or involuntarily confined to a psychiatric institution by a court or other authority. Fewer than 43,000 people have been denied under this criterion.

Where does the gun background check system get all this information?

To ascertain whether an applicant should be disqualified from owning a gun, the FBI draws from three databases. The Interstate Identification Index is a giant repository of criminal convictions used by an array of law enforcement agencies for a range of purposes. The National Crime Information Center, or NCIC, is an “electronic clearinghouse” of other criminal justice records, including protective orders and disposition records Finally, there’s the NICS Indices, which include records contributed by federal, state and local agencies specifically flagging individuals prohibited from buying a gun.

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The NICS Indices hold records that wouldn’t necessarily show up in the other two solely criminal databases. That includes those related to mental health and immigration status. However, some states like Connecticut add nearly all prohibiting records to the NICS Indices because they typically result in a quick denial, without any need for further investigation by the FBI.

So if someone has done something that leaves them banned from firearm ownership, that record will be in one of the databases, the FBI will see it, and they won’t get the gun?

That’s the idea — but as experts will tell you, the gun background check system is only as strong as the records it contains. Some records never make it into the databases, and others are entered in a way that doesn’t make it crystal clear that the person is barred from possessing guns.

States voluntarily supply records to the databases that make up the NICS system, and they do a spotty job of it. According to a Bureau of Justice Statistics report, at the end of 2014 there were 7.8 million active-warrant records in state warrant databases, but only about 2.1 million such records in the NCIC database.

Mental health records present a particular problem. The only way a history of involuntary psychiatric confinement or a judge’s ruling of mental incompetence will show up on a gun background check is if a state makes the effort to submit it to the NICS Indices — those records aren’t meant for the other two databases. The Virginia Tech massacre, committed by a gunman whose history of severe psychiatric illness had not been forwarded to the the FBI, exposed shortfalls in mental health reporting to the NICS Indices. Several states have since made progress in correcting those omissions, but others have remained resistant, citing privacy laws.

The military has also fallen short in forwarding records from its internal justice system. The names of service members expelled under a dishonorable discharge are forwarded to the NICS Indices, since a dishonorable discharge, on its own, triggers a gun ban. Service members convicted in court-martials for other offenses, like felony assault, domestic violence, or drug possession, may also be prohibited from possessing firearms. Those records go into NCIC. Base officers are supposed to add labels to the paperwork database making it clear when the offender is barred from guns.

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In the case of the Sutherland Springs gunman, records from his Air Force court-martial for choking his then-wife and fracturing the skull of his baby stepson were never entered into the FBI’s system. He was able to buy at least three guns from licensed sellers, passing a background check each time. In May, a federal judge ruled that survivors of the massacre and family members of the victims can sue the federal government for negligence.

Do gun background checks work the same in every state?

Yes and no.

Federal law establishes the grounds for gun bans, so generally speaking, a history that gets a person barred in one state will also bar him across the country. But states can also decide that other crimes should also initiate a ban. The federal gun prohibition for domestic abusers doesn’t apply to dating partners, for instance, so 23 states and the District of Columbia have passed their own laws closing that so-called boyfriend loophole.

States also have the option of running their own gun background checks, supplementing the FBI’s databases by sweeping state and local records repositories as well. Twenty one states choose to do so.

Back to my check: How long does it take?

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NICS has “instant” in its name for a reason. Department of Justice guidelines require NICS reviewers to make an immediate decision in 90 percent of cases.

If the check comes back clean, the FBI gives the sale a green light. If it doesn’t, the purchase is denied. Sometimes the FBI seeks more information in order to make a final determination. In those cases, the check is transferred to the FBI’s Criminal Justice Information Services Division, where an examiner reaches out to local law enforcement and other state agencies.

So when a gun background check isn’t instant, how long can it take?

When a check requires more information, the FBI has three business days to make a final determination on the buyer. If a decision can’t be made in that time, a licensed dealer is allowed by law to go ahead and sell the firearm, in a sale referred to by the FBI as a “default proceed.”

The dealer is not required to notify the FBI when a sale goes through this way. The NICS examiner tasked with the case is supposed to keep working on it and has up to 90 days to reach a final conclusion.

Default proceed sales can have public safety implications. In April 2015, the Charleston church gunman legally purchased a Glock in such a transaction after a cascade of clerical errors delayed his background check. He was disqualified from gun ownership because of a drug charge. Two months later, he used the weapon he bought to murder nine parishioners at a church in Charleston, South Carolina.

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FBI data also indicates that some categories of prohibited purchasers tend to stretch past the three-business day window more often than others. According to a December 2016 Government Accountability Office report, the FBI takes a week to deny sales because of a misdemeanor domestic violence conviction. That’s more time than any other kind of denial, which is troubling considering the strong link between domestic violence, homicide and mass shootings.

Say my background check ultimately does show I’m not allowed to own guns, but after the three-day period has expired? Then what happens to the gun I just bought?

If the FBI determines that the buyer was prohibited, the agency sends out a retrieval order to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. The ATF is then responsible for getting the gun back.

Retrieval orders are relatively rare: A NICS operations report from 2000 noted that of more than 45,000 default proceeds issued that year, approximately 5,000 resulted in a retrieval order.

FAQs

How hard is it to pass a federal background check? ›

What does it take to pass a federal background check? The best way to pass the federal background check is to be honest. If you have no criminal history, outstanding debt, conflict of interests, or a history of bad behavior you should be able to pass the background check.

What do federal government background checks look for? ›

The FBI background check will include a comprehensive criminal record check against the FBI's national database, which will include arrest and conviction history, as well as traffic violations and even parking tickets.

What would make me not pass a background check? ›

There are plenty of reasons a person may not pass a background check, including criminal history, education discrepancies, poor credit history, damaged driving record, false employment history, and a failed drug test.

Are there different levels of federal background checks? ›

All security clearances require additional checks that may include interviews with spouses, roommates, neighbors, friends, work colleagues, family members, or acquaintances. There are three levels of security clearance that may be required for a federal government job: Confidential, Secret, and Top Secret.

How do I know if I passed a federal background check? ›

If you passed a background check, you will typically know it because the employer will move forward with hiring you. Most employers only conduct background checks at the end of the hiring process, often after extending a conditional offer of employment.

What are the 4 types of clearance? ›

The four main types of security clearances for national security positions are: confidential, secret, top secret and sensitive compartmented information. This type of security clearance provides access to information that could cause damage to national security if disclosed without authorization.

How long does a federal employee background check take? ›

Pre-employment investigative screening (such as the collection and review of fingerprints and the Questionnaire for National Security Positions, the polygraph exam, and the background investigation) can take up to 12 months, or longer.

What are the 5 levels of security clearance? ›

Hierarchy
  • Controlled Unclassified.
  • Public Trust Position.
  • Confidential.
  • Secret.
  • Top Secret.
  • Compartmented.

What can be revealed in a background check? ›

The typical background check is meant to verify if the applicant is truthful about their criminal record, education, and employment history.

Should I be nervous about a background check? ›

Background checks uncover a lot, and a less than stellar history might make you anxious. Another concern may be an inaccurate background check, especially if this has been an issue in the past. These issues are a concern for anyone in the market for a new job.

Are you hired if they do a background check? ›

Undergoing a background check doesn't always guarantee that an employer has decided to hire you for a job. However, a background check is usually an indicator that an employer is seriously considering you for an available role.

Can you decline a job offer after background check? ›

Yes, you can. But it is not particularly well received as the company has likely lost the backup candidates and invested money for your D and B - drug and background.

What is a Tier 1 background check? ›

Tier 1 is the investigation for positions designated as low-risk, non-sensitive. It is also the minimum level of investigation for a final credentialing determination for physical and logical access. Tier 1 investigations are requested using the Standard Form (SF) 85.

Can family members affect security clearance? ›

Absolutely! In fact, the mere existence of a family member under certain circumstances can preclude or limit a security clearance.

What is the most common type of background check? ›

County criminal history searches are the most common form of criminal background check. These searches allow employers to pull reports from court records of specific counties.

Will a felony show up on a background check after 10 years? ›

Under most circumstances, many locales won't allow a background check companies to share criminal history information that's older than seven years. However, some states allow a background check companies to share information that's up to 10 years old. That includes a conviction, felony, or misdemeanor.

What does it mean when a background check says decisional? ›

What does “decisional” mean on a background check report? “Decisional” means that the employer has configured the results in the background check to require additional review by the employer or the property management company.

Do arrests show up on background checks? ›

When a person has been arrested by the police, the first record that is created is the fact that you were arrested. The is recorded on a database that is shared between police departments and can come up on some background checks, this is known as a Record of Arrests and Prosecutions (RAP) sheet.

How far back does a security clearance go? ›

Security Clearance Adjudicative Process

The clearance process for Secret level access uses an investigation called the National Agency Check with Law and Credit that goes back five years, while the clearance process for Top Secret uses a Single Scope Background Investigation that goes back ten years.

Does security clearance check bank accounts? ›

The background investigator will check your bank accounts. Bad checks is a reason to deny a clearance.

What is a Level 3 clearance? ›

Security Clearance Level 3: Confidential

Confidential security clearance holders have access to material that could be reasonably expected to cause some measurable damage to national security. Most military personnel hold this security clearance level.

What does it mean to pass a federal background check? ›

A federal background check is more thorough than a standard employment check. It is designed to ensure that the hired person is reliable, trustworthy, and of good character.

Will a felony show up on a background check after 10 years? ›

Under most circumstances, many locales won't allow a background check companies to share criminal history information that's older than seven years. However, some states allow a background check companies to share information that's up to 10 years old. That includes a conviction, felony, or misdemeanor.

Is there anyway to get around a background check? ›

Your best bet to beat that background check isn't to lie, but to tell the truth. If ban the box policies are enforced where you live, know that this kind of law restricts employers from asking about criminal history on the job application. It also often delays the background check until late in the screening process.

What is considered a satisfactory background check? ›

Satisfactory criminal history background check determination" means a written determination that a person for whom a records check was performed was found to have no criminal record an arrest, charge or conviction of one of the covered crimes outlined inO.

What happens after you are referred for a federal job? ›

Applicant referred or not referred

The hiring agency decides to send, or not send, your application to the hiring manager. If you're eligible and qualified for the job, the agency will pass your application to the hiring manager, who will then do their own review of the applications and schedule an interview if needed.

How hard is it to get federal job? ›

Many people believe applying for a federal job is a difficult and complicated process, but it is actually very achievable. The search process for federal government jobs can last about 6-18 months, which can be lengthy for many people.

How long does e-QIP process take? ›

You will have seven (7) business days to complete your online e-QIP and the additional forms that were sent to you.

Do arrests show up on background checks? ›

When a person has been arrested by the police, the first record that is created is the fact that you were arrested. The is recorded on a database that is shared between police departments and can come up on some background checks, this is known as a Record of Arrests and Prosecutions (RAP) sheet.

How far back do most background checks go? ›

In general, background checks for employment typically cover seven years of criminal and court records, but may go back further depending on federal and state laws and what is being searched.

What does a DOJ background check show? ›

If the applicant's fingerprints match fingerprints in the national criminal history database, the FBI sends the DOJ a cumulative RAP sheet that contains criminal history information from any states or federal agencies that have reported the information to the FBI.

Can you decline a job offer after background check? ›

Yes, you can. But it is not particularly well received as the company has likely lost the backup candidates and invested money for your D and B - drug and background.

Do background checks show employment history? ›

The simple answer is no. A background check cannot return a list or database of the jobs that a professional has held over the years. Most pre-employment background check services are geared toward uncovering public record information, such as criminal record information, driving records, and credit history.

Should I be nervous about a background check? ›

Should I be worried about a background check? A background check is a prerequisite of the hiring process and cannot be avoided. As long as you are honest on your resume and understand your rights, you will not have anything to worry about. Be sure to review the background check laws in your state before applying.

What does a clean background check mean? ›

A candidate's background check is clean when it doesn't have any major felonies, convictions or misdemeanors. You might also consider their background check to be clean if the candidate confirms previous criminal activity, but it isn't relevant to your industry or the job role.

What shows up on a first advantage background check? ›

With extensive language capabilities in-house and offices worldwide, we can verify employment history in almost any country/territory. Details that we aim to verify include employer name and address, start and end dates, position(s) held and reason for leaving.

Videos

1. Understanding The FBI Criminal Background Check System
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2. Background Investigation For Federal Government Jobs
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3. City, County, and Federal Background Checks
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5. Employee Background Checks: Know Your Rights | Federal Trade Commission
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6. Here’s how the federal gun background check system works in the US | JUST THE FAQS
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