System for background checks on gun buyers faces challenges

Federal and state officials overseeing the development of a computer system that will allow states to conduct instant background checks on would-be weapons buyers are streaking toward a November 1998 deadline but a new Supreme Court ruling and ongoing concerns over data used in the system have posed new challenges to the program.

Justice Department officials said that since 1995 more than $100 million of $200 million in approved funds has been distributed to states to help them computerize criminal records and other information used in conducting background checks of people who try to buy guns. What is envisioned is a federally supported computer system that functions as a hub for state and federal databases holding information on felony convictions mental health histories illegal aliens and the like. State officials or gun dealers would be able to query the system - the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) - and be directed to databases they can use to determine whether someone who wants to buy a gun should legally be allowed to have one.

Still in the planning stages a NICS working group is modeling the system after the one used by the commonwealth of Virginia. That system automatically weeds through databases and provides gun dealers or state officials with a yes-or-no answer in about two minutes.

The development of the system takes place against the background of an ongoing legal battle between handgun control interests and staunch supporters of the right to bear arms. The battle came to a head late last month in a Supreme Court ruling that stated the federal government could not mandate states to conduct background checks on would-be gun buyers. "The court's jurisprudence makes clear that the federal government may not compel the states to enact or administer a federal regulatory program " Supreme Court justices wrote in rendering their opinion on the background-check program.

Despite that ruling - and the fact that states are no longer federally mandated to conduct the checks - Justice officials still expect states to use NICS and are proceeding with development.

"The Supreme Court ruling had nothing to do with [NICS development] " said Justice spokesman Gregory King who explained that there will still be a need for the system. "The states are continuing to run background checks."

Capt. Lewis Vass records management officer for the Virginia State Police Department and a member of the NICS working group also expects states to use the system - even if its use is no longer mandated following the Supreme Court decision. As evidence Vass pointed to the success of Virginia's system which has processed 1.3 million records requests since 1989 identifying 846 people who are wanted arresting 371 of them rejecting 12 359 would-be gun buyers and prosecuting more than 2 700 of them on felony charges for attempting to buy a gun.

Even if states do opt to use the system critics say ongoing concerns over the right to privacy and the accuracy and completeness of the data used to build the system still need to be addressed.

But Is It Accurate?

"This whole thing about having these all-seeing all-knowing databases...is not good policy " said Evan Hendricks editor and publisher of Privacy Times. He contends that it is common for such databases to be as much as 40 percent inaccurate. If the information is inaccurate it is possible innocent citizens could get branded as criminals he added. Moreover keeping the information accurate will be a labor-intensive task according to Hendricks. "It requires so many resources between the person-hours to get it done and making sure the data that goes in is accurate " Hendricks said. "It takes more people and more money than they expect."

Justice spokesman King said Justice officials expect that less than 60 percent of criminal history records will be accessible when NICS goes online at the end of November 1998. Capt. Vass said he also believes the information tied to the system will be accurate but he admitted there are still technical issues to be resolved. Working group members are still sorting through questions on what software is needed how to achieve interoperability among the different databases maintained by states and how many people will be needed to develop and maintain the system he said.

The system that the federal government wants to put into place could have its drawbacks according to Robin Terry spokeswoman for Handgun Control Inc. Handgun Control is chaired by Sarah Brady wife of James Brady the White House press secretary who was shot in 1981 during an attempted assassination of then-President Ronald Reagan. "There's some information that will not be available through that system " said Terry who gave an example of an illegal alien in Florida who was able to buy a gun after a state computer system verified that he was not a Florida felon but failed to verify his residence status. "If there was a computerized system that was very thorough...and you had the five-day waiting period I think we'd be very pleased " she said.

Gary R. Cooper executive director of SEARCH Group Inc. a nonprofit organization that works with states to improve their criminal databases through information technology agreed with Terry that NICS will lack some information.

"I think there's a lot of information dealing with mental health - substance abuse drug abuse information - that is not going to be instantaneously available on the NICS " he said explaining that many states do not automate those types of records or they have privacy laws in place that might protect some of those records. Despite the hole what the states will be able to access when NICS goes online will be far superior to what they can access now Cooper said.

Every state will have access to NICS when it goes online in 1998 said Cooper who explained that the backbone for NICS will be the federally maintained Interstate Identification Index. The index is a catalog-like database whose information is provided by state and local governments.

The index is by no means complete. "Every state has access to that index " Cooper said. "But every state hasn't contributed to that index to the same degree."

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