Editorial

Don't gun down a good deal

An FBI proposal to charge for running computer background checks on prospective gun buyers has run smack into a highly charged political wall.

Some members of Congress and representatives of the gun lobby have charged the FBI with levying an unfair tax on gun dealers— and ultimately gun consumers— for proposing fees for use of the National Instant Criminal Background Check System. NICS will allow the FBI and states to identify those individuals who, for one reason or another, are not legally allowed to buy a gun.

The FBI reportedly has spent close to $30 million in development costs and another $200 million to help states get their criminal records in a shape compatible with the system. The FBI said the fees it would charge gun dealers are needed to defray the costs of overhead and staff running the system.

For years federal agencies have been told that they need to emulate the private sector. They need to buy equipment and services, deliver services to the public and interact with customers like any other business— except, evidently, when it comes to payment for services rendered.

Like so many other sacred cows, it seems that user fees must succumb to the "not in my backyard" mentality. It's OK to consolidate data centers and close military bases as long as it's not in my district. It's OK to pull the plug on delayed and over-budget programs as long as the government contractor isn't located in my district. Now it's OK to charge user fees as long as it doesn't affect a strong and powerful lobby.

Beyond politics, preventing the FBI from charging for NICS is just bad policy and poor precedent. If gun dealers were forced to choose between using the private sector for background checks or else paying for NICS, the FBI's proposed rate of $16 would look like a good deal.

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