FBI speeds background checks on gun buyers

FBI's National Instant Criminal Background Check System 2001/2002 operational report

Ten years after President Clinton signed the so-called Brady Law requiring background checks on most gun buyers, the Justice Department is providing gun sellers with nearly instantaneous information about customers in 91 percent of the cases, according to an FBI report released last week.

The background checks, a controversial provision of the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act (Brady Law) of 1993, are intended to keep guns out of the hands of those prohibited from owning them, such as convicted felons or illegal aliens.

For many years, the background checks — in which retailers call in with a person's name, date of birth and Social Security number, which are checked against Justice databases to ensure he or she is not barred from owning a gun — often took days to complete. But the Brady Law only requires retailers to wait three days for an answer, at which point they are free to make the sale.

Changes to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) has enabled Justice to increase the "immediate determination rate" by 20 percentage points since the beginning of 2001, when the rate was at 71 percent. Currently, 91 percent of calls for background checks result in a "cleared" or "denied" response while the dealer is still on the telephone, according to the FBI's 2001/2002 operational report on NICS.

Of 8.4 million checks in 2002, 121,000 were denied, according to Justice.

If guns are sold to people who are later found to be prohibited from owning them, law enforcement officials must retrieve the weapons. "That's a major, significantly costly and potentially dangerous effort," said Laurie Ekstrand, director of administration of justice issues at the General Accounting Office, who has studied the background check system. "You want a system to be as good as it can be."

Ekstrand said incomplete state criminal data often shows that a person has been arrested, but does not indicate whether he or she was convicted. Also, many older records exist only in paper form and are not part of the electronic databases. If the information isn't there, FBI officials have to track it down, often traveling to the state courthouse to check their records.

"There are efforts under way to get [state] files in better order," Ekstrand said, citing the National Criminal History Improvement Program. But budget constraints often mean that states must choose which systems to update and which data to enter, and officials usually focus on current and future files rather than older paper files.

To improve the immediate returns rate, the FBI developed a better process for comparing a buyer's data against files in the database. The bureau also established a transfer process in which calls that result in potential denials are transferred to an NICS specialist for immediate review. A senior Justice official said the FBI's efforts were prompted by a June 2001 directive from Attorney General John Ashcroft to achieve a goal of 90 percent.

"We know it will never be 100 percent because the state of criminal history records is just not there," the Justice official said. "We're still working toward that goal, but this is a significant, significant improvement, if not an overwhelming improvement."

Ted Novin, a spokesman for the National Rifle Association, praised the Bush administration's focus on the system. "Law enforcement is alerted quicker, and it's very helpful for law-abiding citizens who are able to buy a gun without the delay," he said.

But Blaine Rummel, spokesman for the Educational Fund to Stop Gun Violence, said rather than focus on the speed of the system, Justice should ensure states have complete records. Justice "seems more concerned with speed than with efficacy," he said. "These are weapons, not Happy Meals."

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