White House plan will work only if the IT systems and databases used for background checks and gun tracing get the improvements needed to support stepped-up oversight.
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President Obama's national gun-control initiative hinges on federal agencies' ability to collect, manage and share information on would-be gun buyers and on weapons tied to crimes. But the technology needed to do that work is in desperate need of fixing.
Obama introduced 23 executive orders on Jan. 16 aimed at reducing gun violence through a combination of tougher regulation and enforcement, research, training, education and attention to mental healthcare. Several of the proposed actions involve better information sharing, including requiring federal agencies to make relevant data available to the FBI's background check system and easing legal barriers that prevent states from contributing data to that system.
But the White House plan will work only if the IT systems and databases tied to gun control -- managed by the FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) -- get the overhauls needed to support stepped-up oversight. A handful of IT systems are involved. At the FBI, there's the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS), an auxiliary system called the NICS Index, plus the Interstate Identification Index and the National Crime Information Center. At the ATF, it's the Firearms Tracing System.
The NICS, Uncle Sam's central database for background checks, processed 16.5 million firearms background checks in 2011, but the process for handling those transactions isn't as automated as you might think. Only 6% of the background checks coming into the FBI were submitted electronically via the system's E-Check functionality. The rest come in by phone to an NICS call center, where 91.5% of background checks result in a thumbs up or thumbs down and the rest require follow-up.
The last time an FBI official publicly discussed NICS was November 2011, when David Cuthbertson, assistant director of the bureau's Criminal Justice Information Services Division, testified before a Senate subcommittee on efforts to improve the information available in the system. Timely, comprehensive data is needed because the FBI has only three business days to find relevant information that might be missing from its databases. After that, the gun purchase is allowed to proceed.
In some cases, the FBI fails to uncover records that would block gun shoppers from buying weapons because of disqualifying criteria such as a felony conviction or being in the country illegally. "When that happens, firearms can and do end up in the hands of persons who are not allowed to possess them," Cuthbertson said.
The problem isn't that the records don't exist; it's that the FBI doesn't have them in its systems. The shooter at Virginia Tech in 2007, for example, was allowed to acquire firearms despite a disqualifying mental health history because the records that should have flagged his condition weren't in the NICS Index. That critical shortcoming led in 2008 to the NICS Improvement Amendments Act, intended to create a more complete database. Over the next three years, the number of records in the NICS Index increased 41%, to 7.2 million, and the number of mental health records jumped 153%, to 1.3 million. The FBI also added 766,000 criminal dispositions and increased use of electronic records filing into NICS.
But additional steps must be taken to establish a more accurate and efficient background-check system. Cuthbertson testified that the NICS suffered from outdated IT systems, a shortage of manpower needed to manage and maintain information coming into the system, and legal and policy barriers related to the sharing of mental health information.