Washington Background checks blocked 153,000 of the nearly 7.7 million prospective sales of guns last year, and fewer people tried to buy firearms in 2000 than in 1999, the Justice Department reported Sunday.
Analysts attributed the decline to a drop in crime, which they said has led Americans to feel safer and less inclined to purchase guns.
"These are the long-term positive repercussions of a lower crime rate," said James Alan Fox, criminal justice professor at Northeastern University in Boston. "People see that streets are safer and they are not as compelled to go out and purchase a gun."
Researchers, however, said the decline in applications does not necessarily mean that fewer guns were sold. In some states, people can purchase more than one gun from a single application.
"It's not a measure of whether gun sales are up or down," said Lawrence Greenfeld, acting director at the Justice Department's Bureau of Justice Statistics.
Between 1999 and 2000, there was an 11 percent drop in the number of Americans who tried to purchase guns from federally licensed firearm dealers from 8.6 million to 7.7 million.
Almost all of the 19 states listed in the report as providing complete statewide data for applications and rejections in 2000 had declines last year; the largest were in Indiana (25.8 percent) and California (24.8 percent).
Almost 58 percent of applicants rejected by state and local authorities had felony convictions or indictments, compared with 73 percent in 1999.
The second most common reason for rejection was a domestic violence misdemeanor conviction or a restraining order. Those accounted for about 11,000 applications, or 12 percent of rejections.
Background checks to see if prospective gun buyers have criminal records have been required since February 1994 under the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act.
Through 2000, the FBI or state and local police had rejected 689,000 of nearly 30 million applications, or 2.3 percent, since the effective date of the law on March 1, 1994, compared with the 2 percent rate of rejection in 2000 and a 2.4 percent rate in 1999, the report said. The checks are done electronically.
The report showed that in 2000, the FBI processed 4.3 million applications and state and local agencies processed 3.5 million.
State and local agencies did not approve 86,000, or 2.5 percent of applicants; the FBI rejected 67,000, or 1.6 percent of those who applied in 2000.
Greenfeld attributed the difference to state agencies' access to more detailed criminal history records than the FBI's.
"They may have other databases they check that the FBI couldn't check," Greenfeld said.
Attorney General John Ashcroft said the report shows that the Brady law is working, but more needs to be done to prosecute people who try to purchase guns illegally.
"While the Brady law has helped us stop convicted felons and other dangerous individuals from buying guns easily, violations of the law are not being prosecuted adequately," Ashcroft said.
Ashcroft recently announced several initiatives to improve the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, called NICS, and increase gun prosecutions.
He cited FBI statistics showing that 217,000 attempted illegal gun purchases were referred for investigation, but only 294 people were convicted.
Ashcroft said more federal prosecutors would be hired to pursue people who give false information when trying to purchase guns or apply to purchase a gun that they intend to give to someone else.
He also moved to cut the time the government holds onto background records on people who try to buy guns. The records are kept temporarily so that law enforcement agencies can go back and look for fraudulent transactions or mistaken approvals.
Ashcroft said the government should destroy the records one business day after they are generated instead of the 180 days now allowed by federal regulation.
Democrats and gun control groups criticized the proposed change, saying it plays into the hands of the National Rifle Association, which opposed the holding time, and will make it virtually impossible to check gun-purchase transactions for fraud and abuse.
Ashcroft said auditing can be done in "real time" using technology, but did not specify how the quicker checks would be done.
The 19 states presenting complete 2000 data, followed by the percentage change in applications from 1999 to 2000 where available:
Arizona, minus 13.0; California, minus 24.8; Colorado, 1999 data incomplete; Connecticut, minus 20.9; Florida, minus 3.4; Georgia, minus 15.7; Illinois, minus 10.6; Indiana, minus 25.8; Maryland, plus 3.9; Nevada, minus 19.5; New Hampshire, minus 5.0; New Jersey, plus 1.1; Oregon, minus 7.9; Pennsylvania, minus 15.9; Tennessee, minus 13.5;Utah, minus 12.0; Vermont, minus 6.8; Virginia, minus 9.6; Wisconsin, minus 12.3.