Nearly two decades after Congress required background checks for gun buyers, significant gaps in the FBI database of criminal and mental health records allow thousands of people to buy firearms every year who should be barred, reports the New York Times. The database is incomplete because many states have not provided federal authorities with comprehensive records of people involuntarily committed or otherwise ruled mentally ill. Records are spotty for other categories of prohibited buyers, including those testing positive for illegal drugs or have a history of domestic violence. While some states have submitted more than 100,000 names of mentally ill people, 19 — including New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Vermont, Maryland and Maine — have submitted fewer than 100 records and Rhode Island has submitted none. That suggests that millions of names are missing from the database.
The gaps exist because the system is voluntary; the Supreme Court ruled in 1997 that the federal government cannot force state officials to participate in the federal background check system. As a result, when a gun dealer asks the FBI to check a buyer's history, the bureau sometimes allows the sale to proceed, even though the purchaser should have been prohibited from acquiring a weapon, because its database is missing the relevant records. The database flaws do not appear to have been a factor in the Newtown, Ct., school massacre, but they have been linked to other attacks, including the Virginia Tech mass murder in 2007. Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey said the system needed to be strengthened immediately. “There is a lot of data sitting in different places, and we need to be able to access it in a timely fashion,” he said. “It ought to be a top priority now.”