FBI defends user fee to support computerized background checks

The FBI today defended its proposal to levy a user fee to support the operation of a congressionally mandated system that will instantly run background checks on would-be gun buyers.

Testifying before the House Judiciary Committee's Subcommittee on Crime, FBI officials said the fees, which would be charged to gun dealers, are necessary to cover the overhead and salaries of personnel who will run the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS), which is required to be up and running by November under the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act of 1993. The fees would run as high as $16 per transaction.

But some congressmen, including Rep. Bob Barr (R-Ga.), are opposed to the fees, calling them "a tax" levied by the executive branch without congressional authority. Last month Barr introduced a bill called the No Gun Tax Act of 1998, which would prohibit the fees and which also would prevent federal officials from keeping a database on individuals who are approved for gun purchases.James Kessler Jr., section chief of the operations branch at the FBI's Criminal Justice Information Services Division, said the agency needs to keep the database of legitimate gun buyers for 18 months for use in internal audits on the effectiveness of the new system. He cited a 1991 appropriations law for the Justice Department as the source of the FBI's authority to charge the fee for background checks.

But opponents of the fee maintain that the 1991 law does not cover fees for running background checks on gun purchases but only covers fees for background checks for employment and for certain types of licenses. "We believe the FBI has essentially conjured the authority to levy a tax," said Tanya Metaksa, executive director of the National Rifle Association.

Subcommittee member Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas) said she opposes Barr's bill to prohibit the fee. "The FBI suggested a modest user fee, not a tax," she said. "This legislation interferes with a legitimate law enforcement agency that is trying to do their job."

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