The percentage of background checks resulting in a denial has increased dramatically during the pandemic for firearm purchasers, and 2020 is on track to have the highest number of denials in at least the past two decades.
Data released by the Colorado Bureau of Investigation show that as of June, background checks had resulted in 8,192 denials for firearm purchases in just the first six months of the year. In 2016, there were 8,704 denials total, which was a record high until this year.
Although the raw number of denials is exceptionally large, the percentage of denials compared to approved background checks is also elevated. CBI reports that 3.28% of checks resulted in the denial of a firearm purchase, which is higher than the 2.06% last year and the 1.81% in 2018.
“Yeah, we’ve seen higher denials lately,” said the co-owner of Hammer Down Firearms in Wheat Ridge, who identified himself only by his first name, Chris. “Our best guesstimation is people are thinking that because of the pandemic and what’s going on, they’ll be able to slide by. Like, the system has changed or something .... they’re not looking as hard at people.”
Background checks are a proxy measurement for the number of gun purchases, because there is no national database recording each transaction. The list of disqualifiers to purchase a firearm includes certain criminal convictions, being subject to a restraining order, and being an “unlawful user of or addicted to any controlled substance.” Those who are denied have the opportunity to appeal.
A CBI spokesperson did not have an explanation for why more denials are occurring, and suggested that gun store owners would have a clearer idea. The Federal Bureau of Investigation notes that since the background check system debuted in 1998, there have been over 300 million checks. Denials nationally have totaled 1.5 million, or 0.5%.
While denials in Colorado are up 59% since 2019, so are total gun sales, with an increase of 50% over the first six months last year. Like total purchases, the number of denials did not appear abnormally high until March. Typically, there are between 300 and 600 in a given month. In March, that number jumped to 2,078.
The CBI did not comment about whether the denials were concentrated among certain firearms dealers. A gun store owner in Pueblo West, who did not want to be quoted by name, said he has not experienced an increase in denials because he believed his store effectively screens out people ineligible to purchase weapons.
Scott Patterson, who owns Patterson Arms in Monument, also said the denial rate for him has been normal, and all of them have been reversed on appeal.
“We’re a small shop. We’ve been crazy busy like everybody else since March. A lot of first-time buyers were maybe not aware of the process,” Patterson said. The CBI does not provide gun store owners with the reason for a denial.
Typically drug and assault convictions generate the largest numbers of denials. Restraining orders, burglary and larceny are also prevalent reasons. “Other” generally represents over 40% of denials in a given month. During the pandemic, it does not appear that any one category of denial grew disproportionately.
“I’ve had guys, they owed on a traffic ticket. They had a warrant out and didn’t know it. They forgot all about the ticket. Then the police came and arrested them at the [gun] show,” said Anthony Gorden, the owner and CEO of GT Products in Colorado Springs.
For other customers, said Chris, the store owner in Wheat Ridge, “we can tell they kind of knew” they would be denied. He added that sometimes there are errors in court recordkeeping, and the denials help bring those to light. Patterson said that pending lawsuits against police officers and identity theft are some of the reasons he has seen background checks denied and subsequently overturned.
Colorado is not unique in the uptick of denials accompanying the rash of purchases. The Tribune-Review in Pittsburgh reported that Pennsylvania's background check system saw a 41% rise in denials from January through June. Fear of the pandemic has fueled the purchasing bonanza, although presidential election years typically experience greater weapons purchases than average.