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It's Time To Fix The FBI's Instant Criminal Background Check System

Because assault weapons bans aren’t coming back and AR-15-style rifles are here to stay, the most important item on the agenda to fight gun violence is modernizing the background check system, around which there’s a modicum of bipartisan consensus, writes Gordon Witkin in the New York Times. What’s required is gritty work in the administrative trenches that won’t get anyone elected. The FBI National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS), stitches together three databases of state and federal criminal history records and other so-called hot files. Before NICS was set up in 1993, gun checks were largely the province of the states; some continue to do their own reviews. NICS checks records to approve consumer purchases from federally licensed firearms dealers or deny them to 10 categories of prohibited people, including felons and fugitives. NICS remains a false promise. Conceived as a first line of defense, the system still has enormous data gaps, loopholes and disputes over how prohibited categories should be defined. Hundreds of thousands of crucial records remain outside the system, stacked in dusty boxes in courthouse basements or in legal limbo. Many people who shouldn’t are buying guns. “We know it is deadly to be missing even one critical record, and we’ve seen that in tragedies,” said Rob Wilcox of Everytown for Gun Safety.


Mental health records are a vexing example. State privacy laws frequently prohibit the sharing of records — health care providers are hesitant too — and most states lack a contact person to collect the information and send it to the FBI. In 2007, Seung-Hui Cho killed 32 people at Virginia Tech University with guns he bought despite a documented history of court-ordered mental health treatment. The records never made their way into the system. That shooting brought attention to what Everytown called “fatal gaps in record submissions that undermine the background check system.” A 2011 study by the National Center for State Courts found that states struggled to report even estimates on mental health adjudications or commitments. A more basic NICS flaw involves identifying prospective gun buyers. Purchasers must show only a driver’s license, an easily and regularly forged document. As far back as 2001, federal investigators were able to purchase firearms in five states using counterfeit licenses. Today’s technology — and common sense — argues that buyers should be required to provide fingerprints, which would be read at a gun store by a scanner and then searched in the FBI’s computerized fingerprint database, which is operated with the states. Such issues cry out for more attention, more media coverage, more bully pulpit focus from police chiefs and FBI honchos and the president and Congress, more appropriated money and more public shaming of lazy or recalcitrant state and local governments and health care providers who know someone is dangerous, Witkin writes.

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