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Background check system for guns is deeply flawed

Published: Thursday, Jan. 17, 2013 9:34 a.m. CST

(MCT) — WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama’s emphasis on fixing federal background checks for firearms sales targeted a system so flawed that even federal agencies, as well as many states, haven’t been turning over records meant to determine who can buy guns.

The first six of Obama’s 23 executive actions announced Wednesday were pledges to improve the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, or NICS. The database, maintained by the FBI, holds more than 7.3 million records of people who are barred from buying guns: felons, drug users, domestic violence offenders, fugitives and people who have been committed to mental institutions.

Since it went into effect in 1998, the system has resulted in more than 1.5 million denials of gun transactions, Obama said. The system’s main handicap, Obama and gun-control advocates say, is that it covers only federally licensed gun dealers, and not private transactions — estimated at 40 percent of all gun sales.

“That’s not safe. That’s not smart,” Obama said Wednesday. “It’s not fair to responsible gun buyers or sellers. If you want to buy a gun — whether it’s from a licensed dealer or a private seller — you should at least have to show you are not a felon or somebody legally prohibited from buying one. This is common sense.”

Obama promised to push for legislation to close that gap, with what the White House called “limited, common sense exceptions” for such cases as transfers between family members.

As it now stands, the database is missing millions of names of people who can’t legally own guns. Federal agencies are supposed to turn over any relevant records — for instance, names of people who failed drug tests or those judged mentally ill — but most, including the Defense Department, haven’t provided anything. Obama’s first order sets tight deadlines for agencies to identify records and begin to turn them over.

Many more records are under the control of states, but progress in moving them into the NICS system has been slow. Studies have shown that millions of criminal and drug cases are still missing, in large part because of difficulties in making state court data mesh with the federal system. Mental health records have been a particularly thorny obstacle: Because of privacy concerns, confusion and the difficulties in finding and converting paper records, most states have made “little or no progress” in turning those records over to NICS, according to a study last year by the Government Accountability Office.

Obama pledged to provide $20 million in grants this year to “give states stronger incentives” to provide the data, and $50 million in fiscal 2014.

“It takes money and it takes leadership to fix the problems,” said Richard Schauffler, research director at the National Center for State Courts, who has studied the state records. Officials in state records agencies “want it to work,” he said: “They’re working under terrible constraints, and they need some help.”

Former Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives agent David Chipman of Mayors Against Illegal Guns, an organization that has pushed to improve background checks, said Obama was putting the emphasis where it belonged: “We’ve always known what we needed to do,” he said. “It was just the will to do it.”

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