Can You Still Buy A Firearm During A Government Shutdown?
It feels like the last several years have held so many federal government shutdowns that the population of America has almost become accustomed to them. But what if you are looking to purchase a firearm that requires a federal background check? Would the government shut down prevent you from doing so?
To get to the bottom of this question, let's first take a look at which federal agencies are affected by a government shut down.
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What Federal Agencies Are Affected By A Government Shutdown?
In order to answer the question of whether a citizen can purchase a firearm during a government shutdown let's first take a look at exactly which federal agencies are affected by a government shutdown. Wikipedia contains a list of federal government agencies whose operation was affected by the United States federal government shutdown of 2013.
1. American Battle Monuments Commission.
3. Consumer Product Safety Commission.
4. Department of Agriculture.
5. Department of Commerce.
6. Department of Defense. 6.1 Military Academies.
7. Department of Education.
8. Department of Energy.
9. Department of Health and Human Services
10. Department of Homeland Security
11. Department of Housing and Urban Development
12. Department of the Interior
13. Department of Justice
14. Department of Labor
15. Department of State
16. Department of Transportation
17. Department of the Treasury
18. Department of Veterans Affairs
19. Environmental Protection Agency
20. Federal Communications Commission
21. Federally funded research and development centers
22. Social Security Administration
23. The White House
There are at least another dozen government agencies which were affected by the 2013 shutdown, but the ones most important to answering our question are listed above.
Which Federal Government Agencies Is Responsible For Background Checks?
According to Wikipedia, "The National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) is a United States system for determining if prospective firearms or explosives buyers' name and birth year match those of a person who is not eligible to buy." It goes on to say that the background back was mandated by the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act, or the "Brady Law," of 1993.
After a person completes the appropriate form, the gun store must hold a Federal Firearms License (FFL) and is responsible for initiating the background check which can be accomplished either by phone or by computer. It is worth noting that it is not required under federal law for intrastate firearm transfers between private parties to conduct background checks, although some states do require them even between private parties.
According to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) website, NICS checks are conducted by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). Since the FBI is a branch of the Department of Justice, I referred back to the list of affected government agencies from the 2013 government shutdown. Referring back to the Department of Justice section, I found that 85% of Justice Department employees will stay on the job. Now that we know the FBI is responsible for processing background checks when a citizen applies for a firearms license, and the Justice Department is affected by the shutdown, will the FBI be affected by the government shutdown?
How Does The Government Shutdown Affect The FBI?
The FBI website contains an entire section about the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) which includes an informational video:
"NICS is located at the FBI’s Criminal Justice Information Services Division in Clarksburg, West Virginia. It provides full service to FFLs in 30 states, five U.S. territories, and the District of Columbia. Upon completion of the required Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) Form 4473, FFLs contact the NICS Section via a toll-free telephone number or electronically on the Internet through the NICS E-Check System to request a background check with the descriptive information provided on the ATF Form 4473. NICS is customarily available 17 hours a day, seven days a week, including holidays (except for Christmas). Please be advised that calls may be monitored and recorded for any authorized purpose."
According to the Washington Post, agents with the FBI, DEA, and ATF will keep working through the government shutdown, including the Coast Guard, Border Patrol, and ICE. So, does this answer our initial question about whether the shutdown would prevent someone from purchasing a firearm?
Since the FBI is responsible for processing federal background checks using the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) and the FBI will continue operating as usual during the shutdown it follows that one would still be able to purchase a firearm and complete any necessary federal background checks. So in short, the answer is yes, you can still buy a firearm during a government shutdown.
There is one caveat that I discovered on the FBI website while researching this question. The NICS is not available during Christmas Day. "NICS is customarily available 17 hours a day, seven days a week, including holidays (except for Christmas)," according to the FBI website. However, this shouldn't be much of an issue considering you'd be hard pressed to find a gun store that is open on Christmas Day anyway.
Earlier this year, a government shutdown took place in January during which the website Personal Defense World reported that the FBI's background check system (NICS) would remain open during the shutdown and continue operating as usual. The DOJ also issued a statement during the January shutdown which said essential personnel would not be affected which includes essential personnel:
"...in the Criminal Justice Information Services Division, which provides fingerprint identification services to criminal and national security investigations, and the Records Management Division, which provides name check services to criminal and national security investigations. Excepted personnel also include nearly all federal employees supporting the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS)."
It would be difficult to imagine that the NICS system would be shut down during this most recent government shutdown since the system is so vital not just for background checks but for fingerprint identification services, national security investigations, and records management. So I think it is safe to say that yes, it is still possible to purchase a firearm, (assuming you pass the federal background check conducted through the NICS). The only day that you would not be able to have a background check application processed is on Christmas Day.