The FBI has improved its ability to respond quickly to gun dealer requests for criminal background checks (search), with only 9 percent of the transactions now facing delays, the Justice Department reported Thursday.

Improvements in technology have reduced the number of false matches in the National Crime Information Center system (search), raising the immediate response rate from a 71 percent average in early 2001 to 91 percent in 2002.

The improvement means that most gun dealers now can get information over the phone about whether a firearms purchaser is a convicted felon or other person prohibited from buying one. In the past, many dealers had to wait for an FBI agent to review records and make a final determination.

In a statement, Attorney General John Ashcroft said the improvements "are helping make our country safer by barring access to firearms by felons, illegal aliens and others who cannot legally own guns."

To reduce the remaining 9 percent of cases in which there are delays, the Justice Department is attempting to improve the completeness of criminal history records at both the state and federal levels. The department will distribute $48 million to help states improve records in 2003.

The report Thursday provides updated figures about the operations of the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (search), or NICS, which was established in November 1998 and is an outgrowth of the 10-year-old Brady Act gun control law.

The system processed 8.9 million background checks in 2001, with 125,000 denials of permission to purchase a gun. In 2002, the numbers were 8.4 million checks and 121,000 denials.

Since its inception through the end of 2002, more than 36 million background checks have been done with 563,000 denials.