By James Kelleher
CHICAGO, Jan 4 (Reuters) - The FBI performed a record number of instant background checks on would-be firearm buyers in 2011 as Americans went on an apparent gun-buying spree, according to new government data.
The FBI said it fielded nearly 16.5 million queries from firearms sellers last year, checking that customers buying guns did not have criminal records or other red flags that made them ineligible to purchase weapons.
That was up 15 percent from 2010, when the FBI performed 14.4 million screenings using its so-called National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS), and the highest number of annual screenings performed since 1998, when the checks went into effect.
The FBI cautioned that each background check did not necessarily represent an individual firearm sale, in part because some would-be buyers fail to pass the screening.
But FBI spokesman Stephen Fischer said the background checks are correlated with weapon purchases. So the uptick in screenings last year suggests that an increase in gun sales the agency has been tracking for several years was continuing.
Fischer declined to analyze or comment on the jump in firearms purchases, saying the bureau's responsibility was only "to operate and maintain the NICS system."
But Andrew Arulanandam, a spokesman for the National Rifle Association, said he believed the political uncertainty surrounding next year's general election was prompting would-be gun buyers to accelerate purchases.
Arulanandam said the jump in sales since 2006 largely reflected concern that the Democrats swept into office in recent years, including President Barack Obama, would curb the right to bear arms.
BUYING SURGE SINCE 2006
Purchases of handguns and rifles, which had held steady throughout the early part of the decade, began to surge in 2006 and have nearly doubled since then, FBI data showed.
Kentucky, which ranks 26th nationally in terms of population, topped the state rankings for pre-purchase background checks in 2011, the FBI said.
Gun sellers in the Bluegrass State, which has just 4.3 million residents, generated almost 2.3 million instant background checks in 2011 - accounting for roughly one of every seven the FBI processed during the year.
But Fischer said Kentucky's numbers were distorted because the state runs a fresh background check every month on gun owners with state-issued concealed weapons permits.
Texas, which ranks No. 2 in population according to the Census Bureau, ranked No. 2 in the background checks as well, with 1.15 million screening requests in 2011.
Texas was followed by Utah, which accounted for nearly a quarter of the overall increase in checks and sales in 2011.
Utah is an increasingly popular place for gun owners from all over the country to get a concealed-firearms permit because it is cheap, easy to apply for even if buyers do not live in Utah, and recognized in nearly three dozen other states.
The FBI data for 2011 was released close to the Jan. 8 anniversary of the shooting rampage in Tucson, Arizona, that killed 6 people and injured 13, including Democratic Representative Gabrielle Giffords.
That incident raised serious questions about the background checks after it emerged that Jared Lee Loughner, the accused shooter, had legally purchased the gun he allegedly used in the attack from a sporting goods store - despite having engaged in bizarre, disruptive behavior well before the shooting.
While the FBI data show the number of background checks have risen, the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence says there has been no progress on legislative efforts to tighten gun control following the Tucson shooting.
Dennis Henigan, the group's acting president, told Reuters the only gun bill that has come for a vote in Congress since Tucson has been the so-called "Packing Heat On Your Street" bill, officially known as "National Right-to-Carry Reciprocity Act of 2011" (H.R. 822).
That measure, which has passed the House of Representatives but stalled in the Senate, would make it easier for people to carry concealed handguns across state lines.
"Really it is a national disgrace that the only piece of gun-related legislation to come to a vote since Tucson was this legislation that would have enabled dangerous concealed carriers like Jared Loughner to carry their guns across state lines," Henigan said.
But the National Rifle Association says H.R. 822 would only require states to recognize one another's concealed carry permits the same way they recognize one another's driver's licenses, eliminating confusion and potential legal problems for traveling gun owners. (Additional reporting by Tim Gaynor; Editing by Cynthia Johsnton and Peter Bohan)