A Blueprint for Improving Gun Background Checks


As Congress debates how to fix the nation’s deficient system of checking prospective gun buyers’ backgrounds, the people who run the system now have issued a blueprint of what should be done.

Their answer, in brief: many changes in the law to improve information sharing among states, and a major investment of federal dollars.

The recommendations came from SEARCH, a national organization of officials who run the National Criminal History Improvement (NCHIP) and National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) programs in the states in its report, which was sent late last week to key officials in the Obama administration, on Capitol Hill, and to criminal justice organizations.

“There is still much to be done to realize a truly complete and accurate national criminal history background check system,” SEARCH says.

The organization, based in Sacramento, CA, is run by a board headed by Francis Aumand III of the Vermont Department of Public Safety.

About 2.1 million applications (out of 118 million requests) for firearms transfers or permits have been denied since the 1993 federal Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act, which established the system.

The checks currently are done by different entities: 13 so-called point of contact states do all background checks in their states; in seven states, the states handle the handn checks and the FBI does checks regarding long guns; the FBI performs the checks for the other 30 states.

Ten categories of people are ineligible for firearms purposes, but SEARCH says that “literally millions of records in four of these categories are not available to the system.”

These include information on people convicted of felonies, people under indictment, fugitives, and drug abusers.

Felony convictions, SEARCH says, “are woefully underreported due to the overwhelming number of dispositions missing [from the federal Interstate Identification Index] due to challenges in marching arrest records and disposition information.”

As of 2010, only seven states had a final disposition listed for at least 90 percent of the felony charges on record.

Lack of Mental Health Records

Another major problem is the lack of good records in another big category: those who have been involuntarily committed to mental institutions.

Unless they are part of a criminal case, such records are maintained outside of the criminal justice system by agencies like private hospitals and may not be available to the national background check system, SEARCH says.

SEARCH didn’t take a stand on one of the most divisive current issues: whether background checks should be conducted in private firearms sales (the so-called “gun show loophole”).

However, the organization did say that if Congress decides to require such checks, that could cause a “significant workload increase” in the underfunded system.

The SEARCH report doesn’t estimate how big of a federal infusion it would take to fix the background check system–some have estimated hundreds of millions of dollars–but it did offer a good example of the challenges of making major improvements.

In 2007, Virginia Tech student Seung-Hui Cho shot and killed 32 people and wounded 17 others before killing himself.

He had bought firearms despite having been ordered to receive mental treatment. Congress passed a law after the incident to improve the background check system.

However, only 20 states have qualified for funding under the law because most states have not met one of the statute’s requirements: establishing an appeals process for those “adjudicated as a mental defective.”

Although Congress authorized spending of $1.25 billion over five years to implement the law, when it has come to actually appropriating money, the expenditures have been minuscule: currently $5 million per year, a tiny figure by federal standards.

SEARCH urges that in its deliberations this year, Congress find a way to ensure that all states qualify for funding to improve their databases for firearms background checks, creating incentives to encourage participation rather than penalties for failing to comply.

“To disqualify states from funding to improve their criminal history record system only weakens the potential for a national system that provides the most complete, accurate, and timely records to inform critical decision-making,” SEARCH says.

With the prospect of more federal budget cuts in the ongoing debate over “sequestration,” it’s not clear where lawmakers will find funds for real improvements in the background check system.

Ted Gest is president of Criminal Justice Journalists and Washington editor of The Crime Report. He welcomes comments from readers.

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