NICS Firearms Background Check System: Filling the Gaps

One of the compromises of the 1993 Brady Bill was that, rather than a five day waiting period for criminal checks and a “cooling off period” the development of the NICS instant background check would be used for the purchase of firearms. Nearly six years later, in late 1998 the National Instant Criminal Background Check System came on-line. Its design intent was to provide a comprehensive, national system from which a quick decision could be made as to whether a gun buyer was legally allowed to own on.

The process to the end users, the gun shops and buyers is very simple. The buyer fills out an ATF Form 4473 [May5, 2013 EDIT, the ATF has taken this link down] which provides information such as name, Social Security number, place of birth, and a series of questions that would, if filled out correctly filter out those who can’t purchase. And if purchasers lie, it stands as evidence of lying on a federal document. The gun dealer then calls NICS and within minutes [usually less than 10] the purchaser is taken to the cash register to pay for their new weapon.

With any system there are flaws…with NICS there are many. Currently 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. But that database is only as good as the data that is fed into it.

And more importantly that NICS database is only used in an estimated 40% of all gun purchases.  60% of purchases are either done friend to friend; through on-line contact which results in either person to person [PTP] sales or firearms illegally shipped from seller to buyer; at gun shows that often have over 1,000 tables of used guns for sale on any given weekend.

The basic design of the database is that date is delivered to the NICS system by at least 60 disparate sources, each with their own data design, their own policies, and their own budget limitations. Each state and the District of Columbia must submit crime data, mental health data, and records of domestic abuse restraining orders. Further that data is derived from thousands of police and sheriff’s departments and courts. Each faces dwindling resources to maintain the completeness and integrity of their data. And further, the timely delivery of that data to the federal system. The Department of Defense, TSA, Homeland Security, Customs and other government agencies also are required to channel data to the NICS system. And with those multiple sets of data, in various states of completion and accuracy come the problems. Integration and data integrity.

To that end, to resolve the limitations of the NICS system President Obama, with five Executive Orders is putting pressure on the federal government to clean up the system, make it was it was originally envisioned. For that purpose he has committed $70Million.

One of the main stumbling blocks is the development of date from mental health sources…data show twenty-five states have submitted fewer than 100 mental health records; six have reported zero.  This means that the cause that most attribute to gun violence, the one set of data that can reduce the number of guns sold to those who should not have them is incomplete or missing. And the problem is not just poor record transfer. Between HIPAA’s privacy restrictions and reluctance by many health care professionals to commit to paper their concerns and the politics of many states which are less inclined to submit reports, the problem is far from easy to solve. It is not simply passing data through from state to federal systems.

After Virginia Tech the Bush Administration signed, in January 2008 new legislation to improve the record keeping between states and federal systems. To date, five years after it was signed there has been little improvement. Officials blame privacy laws, antiquated record-keeping and a severe lack of funding for the failure to comply.

Where do we go from here?

In order to bring the NICS system up to expectations, systems designers will need to redesign and fund federal AND state data collection systems to allow a quicker, easier, less expensive transfer of data between sources. The NICS system should be used as the framework for improvement, not a complete redesign of the system. The key will be in funding the design for disparate systems to bring them into a singular compliance. Further, the political policies that have kept agencies and states from quickly and completely sharing their date will have to be resolved.

And Congress will have to step up to address the 60% of all gun purchases that do not, at this time run through gun shops and the NICS system. A system where all private sales pass through federally licensed gun dealers [FFLs] to insure a paper trail of the transaction, and thorough background check is implemented.

This element of the solution to end gun violence will not be quick, it will not be inexpensive and it will not be without stepping on toes. But, when complete it will provide a more comprehensive system to address the purchase of firearms, purchase by those who are, by Constitution and law legally able to buy and own weapons.

McAllister is a 30 year Systems Analyst and Architect who designs and implements large capacity data systems for both private sector and government.

Read more observations by McAllister at Shoot From the Left Hip.

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2 responses to “NICS Firearms Background Check System: Filling the Gaps

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