Gun sales surged during the pandemic, but so did rejections from background checks, which hit a record high of 300,000

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CHANTILLY, VA - NOVEMBER 18: AR-15 rifles are on display during the Nation's Gun Show November 18, 2016 at Dulles Expo Center in Chantilly, Virginia. Alex Wong/Getty Images
  • The FBI processed a record 39.7 million firearm background checks in 2020, and checks are trending higher this year.

  • More checks means more rejections, reaching 300,000 last year, nearly twice the level in 2019.

  • Of the rejects, 42% had felony convictions on their records, according to Everytown for Gun Safety.

  • See more stories on Insider's business page.

Federal background checks on firearm purchases blocked a record 300,000 sales in 2020, new data from the advocacy group Everytown for Gun Safety shows.

The number of rejections are part of a record year for gun sales in 2020, where the FBI said it processed 39.7 million background checks - 10 million more than the previous high.

"There's no question that background checks work, but the system is working overtime to prevent a record number of people with dangerous prohibitors from being able to buy firearms," said Sarah Burd-Sharps, Everytown's director of research, in a statement.

The group said the denial rate was 31% higher in 2020 than in 2019, and that the numbers are likely an undercount of the national picture.

In addition to sales of firearms themselves, background checks are required for things such as concealed-carry permits and suppressors, and therefore not an exact reflection of gun sales. Even so, they are a key indicator of the market.

Of the rejected sales, 42% of would-be gun buyers had felony conditions on their records, which could be related to a higher number of first-time buyers, one expert told the Associated Press.

"Some may have a felony conviction on their record and not think about it," said Adam Winkler, a UCLA Law professor specializing in gun policy.

Making false statements on a firearm background check is a federal crime, but Winkler said few people are prosecuted for violating it.

Roughly one in six would-be gun buyers in 2020 were blocked by state law, the findings from Everytown show, but several loopholes allow purchasers to effectively bypass the background check system.

For example, unlicensed private sellers are often exempt from flagging the sale, and a three-day decision deadline allows a purchase to go ahead if the check is not completed in time.

Sales in 2021 are already on track for another record year, with 4.7 million background checks in March alone. Democratic initiatives to strengthen the federal check system are effectively stalled out due to Republican opposition in the Senate.

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