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Improving the database behind gun sale background checks could help prevent mass shootings
May 27, 2022

Improving the database behind gun sale background checks could help prevent mass shootings

A loophole in an FBI system can allow sales to proceed without all the relevant information.

Amid the grief in response to the mass shootings in Texas, New York and California, there’s an ongoing search for solutions, especially ones that can push through the political deadlock over gun control reform.

One potential solution has to do with the data and technology used in background checks — specifically, the National Instant Criminal Background Check System.

Cassandra Crifasi, a professor and deputy director at the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Violence Solutions tells Marketplace’s Kimberly Adams that the database only works well if the information going into it is accurate and timely. The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.

Cassandra Crifasi: There can be delays in reporting information. There isn’t a really clear set of guidelines as to how quickly this information needs to be reported in the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, or NICS. And there are gaps in the information that is recorded. For a very long time we struggled getting mental health records into the NICS system, because there was a misperception that this would violate HIPAA in some way. I think it’s really important for people to understand when a firearm seller gets a flag that someone is denied a purchase, it doesn’t give any reason why, all it says is “denied.”

Kimberly Adams: When you talk about mental health being included in this, what are we exactly talking about? Like if you’re taking medications for depression or anxiety, does that get you blocked from buying a gun?

Crifasi: The federal law related to mental health says that — it’s unfortunately outdated language — that someone cannot purchase or possess a firearm if they are adjudicated “mentally defective.” What that translates into is an involuntary commitment. We have a lot of people in the U.S. who have mental health issues, even diagnosable mental illnesses. But that does not necessitate a prohibition on firearm ownership.

Adams: I understand there’s also a problem known as the default proceed loophole. What is that?

Crifasi: When you walk into a gun seller and you submit your information for a background check, one of three things happens. Either you’re alerted that the sale can immediately proceed, it might be immediately denied, or more information is needed, more time is needed to check the records. Under federal law, the FBI has three days to complete that check. Otherwise, the default is to proceed with the sale. And then if the information comes back that that person is prohibited, law enforcement has to go and take a gun away from someone who never should have had it in the first place. The Charleston church shooter, for example, was prohibited. He obtained his firearm because of a default proceed loophole, his records were not identified within that three-day period. And so we’re seeing really tragic incidents happening because of these default proceeds. And I think this is something that we can get people to come together on and try to close this loophole.

Adams: In the private sector, there have been a ton of advances when it comes to background checks for things like jobs. Are there any lessons or technology that could transfer here?

Crifasi: For many jobs that require a background check, that background check is facilitated by a fingerprint. That helps us ensure that we are properly identifying and screening out people who may be prohibited from gun ownership or who otherwise might have a criminal history that would make them not fit for the job that they’re applying to. And so many occupational licensure programs actually require that fingerprint-based screening. There was a report that came out of, I believe it was Florida, several years ago, that showed name, date of birth and other demographic factor background checks on their own, missed between 10% and 12% of criminal background information or prohibiting conditions. Using fingerprints is a really important advancement that we could do to improve our background check system.

Adams: In search for some kind of solution to gun violence in this country, how much attention or legislation is focused on improving the technology or the methods that go into background checks?

Crifasi: There have been legislative efforts to address gaps in the National Instant Criminal Background Check System. So for example, in 2018, the Fix NICS Act was passed, which provided both incentives and some potential punitive measures if states did not improve their reporting. And from 2015 through 2020, we saw substantial improvements in both the number and quality and kind of records that were being reported by states into the NICS system. I think a target of opportunity, moving forward, would be to address that default precede loophole. I think this is a policy decision that really undermines our background check system and our efforts to compile good data by giving people firearms in the absence of complete information.

Adams: In your line of work, how do you maintain hope?

Crifasi: It can be challenging, but it’s important for anyone working in the space, or thinking about trying to reduce the burden of gun violence, to have optimism. And for me that optimism comes from the fact that we have solutions right now that we know can address this problem. We have evidence-based policies that are in place in states across the country that we know are associated with reductions in things like mass shootings, firearm homicide, firearm suicide. Some of these things include requiring people who want to buy gun to get a license, or extreme risk protection orders that allow family members or law enforcement to petition the court to temporarily separate someone from their firearms during a time of crisis. These are effective policies that are supported by more than 70% of U.S. adults, including the majority of gun owners. And so those are the kinds of things that help me stay hopeful and help me stay optimistic because we have things that work.

The FBI has more information about its National Instant Background Check System. According to the agency’s latest Operations Report from 2019, the NICS processed over 29 million firearm background checks in that year.

If you’d like to learn more about the default proceed loophole, here’s more information from Giffords, a gun-control focused research center founded by former congressional representative Gabby Giffords.

In 2011, Giffords and 18 others were shot at a political event near Tuscon, Arizona. The center also has a list of states that have already lengthened the three-day period for completing a gun sale background check, ranging from 14 days for a handgun in North Carolina to 180 days in New York.

Regarding tech innovations to improve gun safety, Dr. Crifasi mentioned the ongoing attempts to market personalized “smart guns” that use fingerprints or near-field communication to a ring or bracelet in order to unlock a gun.

But, she says, the tech isn’t quite where it needs to be yet. This story from Reuters explains what problems the manufacturers are still struggling to solve (like stopping them from being hacked or disrupted by magnets).

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The team

Daniel Shin Daniel Shin
Jesus Alvarado Assistant Producer