TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - The gift of a gun may be high on many Floridians' holiday shopping lists.
The Florida Department of Law Enforcement says it is on target to conduct nearly 1 million background checks this year on private firearm purchases. The projection comes as the department is reporting a record number of reviews conducted over the Thanksgiving weekend that typically kicks off the year-end holiday shopping season.
"We have definitely seen an increase in the number of background checks over the past several years," FDLE spokeswoman Samantha Andrews said Monday. "You can see November and December are relatively larger" for sales.
Andrews declined to speculate on the reason for the increase and said the checks are only conducted on the individuals making purchases.
National Rifle Association lobbyist Marion Hammer said that in addition to buying firearms as gifts, guns sales have grown due to the improved economy and an effort by merchants to move stock by offering enticing holiday sales.
"I think it's a combination of people wanting to take advantage of sales as well as the gift giving," Hammer said. "The retailers I talked to ... they feel the economy may be starting to recover, or people are relaxing a little more, and are starting to turn loose some of the money they were reluctant to spend. And it's that time of year."
The FDLE recorded approximately 823,000 checks on firearms purchases as of Dec. 15, of which about 40,000 were from December. Last December, the department recorded more than 110,000 checks.
The 2013 number already surpasses the 797,000 background checks conducted in 2012. There were roughly 610,000 checks conducted in 2011.
Each check includes criminal history and mental-health database reviews.
Times can fluctuate depending upon demand, but the agency aims for a 4 minute turn-around when a check is conducted by a dealer over the phone, Andrews said.
The check can also be done online.
Fewer than 6 percent of the checks result in a sale being denied, Andrews said.
There were nearly 13,500 checks conducted the Friday and Saturday after Thanksgiving, up from 13,200 during the same period a year earlier.
Because of the growing number of background checks, the FDLE has requested 18 new employees during the next budget year to help complete the requests in the firearms purchase program, while another 18 employees already doing the quick checks under an "other personal services" temporary designation could be shifted into full-time positions.
The requests are part of a $19 million increase proposed to the FDLE's $269 million budget for the 2014-15 fiscal year.
During an appearance last week before the state Cabinet, FDLE Commissioner Gerald Bailey pointed to the Thanksgiving weekend as an example of a spike in sales that taxes staff time.
"In order to do this, we had to bring in people from other parts of the departments to make it work," Bailey told Gov. Rick Scott and members of the Florida Cabinet.
Bailey added that even though there was a brief glitch when the internal system for Wal-Mart went down, the checks were done relatively quickly.
The increased number of checks comes at the same time as Florida has a record number of concealed-weapon or firearm licenses issued by the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.
The consumer services department reported that as of Nov. 30, there were 1,195,645 concealed weapon or firearm licenses issued in Florida. The state went over the 1 million mark a year ago, becoming the first state in the nation to surpass that figure.
Hammer said because of the increasing population, and a growing awareness of the state's concealed-carry laws, guns sales will continue to grow.
"People are more aware of the need to protect themselves and their families," Hammer said.
The checks typically also increase around Valentine's Day and in the spring as federal tax refunds are mailed out, Andrews said.
Copyright 2013 by The News Service of Florida. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.