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Lawmakers seek to tighten gun background checks

CQ Roll Call report revealed that FBI purged thousands of incomplete checks

California Rep. Jimmy Panetta has introduced legislation that would stop the FBI from purging incomplete gun background checks from its systems after 88 days.
California Rep. Jimmy Panetta has introduced legislation that would stop the FBI from purging incomplete gun background checks from its systems after 88 days. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

The FBI would no longer be able to purge incomplete gun background checks from its systems if legislation by Rep. Jimmy Panetta becomes law.

The California Democrat introduced the bill Friday in response to a CQ Roll Call report that revealed the bureau purges hundreds of thousands of background checks each year — a practice that could allow gun sales without a completed background check.

If the new bill gets out of the House, it would join two other gun-control measures advanced by the chamber that face stiff odds in the Republican-controlled Senate.

“As a former prosecutor, I know the importance of keeping firearms out of the hands of dangerous people,” Panetta said. “My bill will help in that effort by ensuring people who should not have a firearm don’t get a firearm because of a bureaucratic lapse.”

The National Shooting Sports Foundation, which represents the firearms and ammunition industries, said it opposes the legislation.

“Retaining records of Americans who exercise their Second Amendment rights beyond the congressionally-prescribed 89 days will not help NICS to have the resources it needs to complete all background checks within three business days,” spokesman Lawrence G. Keane said in an email, using the official acronym for the gun background check system.

“The firearms industry has led the effort to have Congress provide NICS with more resources to do its job in a timely, accurate and efficient manner,” he added.

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The FBI usually gives gun dealers an immediate “yes” or “no” when they run a background check on a potential gun buyer. But in some cases, it has to delay the sale to do more research on whether buyers have a previous arrest or conviction that would bar them from owning a gun under federal or state law.

If the delay takes longer than three business days, current law and regulations allow gun dealers to make the sale without a completed background check. The FBI continues its research but stops after 88 days and purges the background check from its systems.

That happened 201,323 times in 2018, the most recent year for which data is available, according to data obtained by CQ Roll Call. The numbers were similar in previous years.

It’s impossible to know how many of those people purchased guns without a completed background check — or how many  purchases would have been blocked if the FBI had completed the background checks instead of purging them from its systems.

Panetta’s bill would allow the FBI to maintain the data for a gun background check in its systems until the check is complete.

“This bill will make the system more accurate so that dangerous people don’t fall through the cracks and obtain firearms,” said Lindsay Nichols, federal policy director at the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence. 

Under the new bill, prospective gun buyers would be notified if a background check takes longer than 30 days. That would include notice that the FBI can retain their data until the background check is complete and information on how to submit additional records to expedite the process.

An internal FBI report on the 2015 Charleston, South Carolina, church shooting highlighted “short data purge windows” as a challenge for the background check system and suggested that the bureau “assess the possibility for legislative relief.”

Dylann Roof, the shooter in the Charleston attack that left nine African American worshippers dead, bought his gun after the FBI delayed his background check. The bureau later determined that Roof should have been blocked from purchasing a firearm because of a previous drug arrest.

Panetta’s bill would also require the FBI to query its National Data Exchange, or N-DEx, database when it does an initial background check. The 2015 report identified gaps in the bureau’s databases as the major reason for such delays.

At present, background check examiners can only query N-DEx to research a delayed background check.

Other legislation

The House passed two gun-control measures last February. HR 8 would expand gun background checks to private sales. HR 1112 would expand the three-business-day window before a dealer can make a sale without a completed background check. Democratic efforts to force a Senate vote on both measures have so far failed.

There were hopes for a deal on gun control legislation last year, after a string of high-profile mass shootings brought Republican and Democratic senators and the White House to the negotiating table. But impeachment soured the relationship between congressional Democrats and President Donald Trump, scuttling the bipartisan talks.

“The FBI must make these changes to its system in order to ensure that dangerous people don’t fall through the cracks and obtain firearms,” Nichols said.

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