April 14, 1997 in Nation/World

Idaho Handgun Buyers Facing Five-Day Delay Funds For Instant Background Checks Dry Up, Meaning County Sheriffs May Bear Brady Act’s Costs

From Staff And Wire Reports St

Idaho handgun buyers may find themselves waiting a bit longer to get their weapons.

A state program that allows gun dealers to instantly check the criminal background of would-be gun buyers is running out of money.

That means buyers may have to wait up to five days to purchase pistols. And it may mean Idaho sheriff’s departments - via county taxpayers - will have to foot the bill for the criminal background checks.

The federal Brady Act - which requires that the criminal records of handgun buyers be checked - is designed to prevent felons from buying guns.

For the past three years, Idaho has had a program that allows gun sellers to check criminal histories instantly by phone.

But the Legislature’s refusal to retool Idaho’s approach means the instant check program will go broke later this year.

That likely will shift the federal Brady Act’s burden to county sheriffs.

Sheriff’s departments are concerned about the impact yet another responsibility will have.

“This is another federal mandate without any funding for it,” Kootenai County Sheriff Pierce Clegg said. “Quite frankly, I think our resources could be used for something better.”

However, some retailers who pushed for instant checks to avoid the waiting period in 1994 now think it could be a commercial boon because it would require handgun buyers to come into their stores twice instead of just once: First when they buy the gun and then after their criminal record is checked.

The Brady Act requires that during a five-day period, authorities make a “reasonable effort” to find out if the buyer has a felony record, a history of mental illness or illegal drug use, or some other problem that would make the sale illegal.

Licensed gun dealers currently telephone the state Bureau of Criminal Identification, and it does the checks by computer.

Only handguns are affected. Rifle and shotgun purchasers need not be checked.

Three years ago, the handgun dealers agreed to a $100 licensing fee to underwrite the $90,000-a-year cost of the instant-check service.

But, coupled with an increase in the federal gun-dealer licensing fee, most past federal licensees declined to renew and get the state license. So, the fee raised less than half the cash needed. Taxpayers wound up subsidizing the service to the tune of $150,000.

Department of Law Enforcement spokeswoman Ann Thompson said a number of retailers simply decided not to sell handguns anymore.

In 1994, only 559 of the 2,500 potential dealers notified bought the $100 handgun sales licenses. The state did 29,756 checks, resulting in 1,010 people being denied handguns.

Last year, the number of licensees dropped to 413. Background checks totaled 24,625, leading to 693 denials.

Faced with the cash crunch, the House Judiciary Committee proposed replacing the inadequate licensing fee with a $5 transaction fee on each handgun purchase. Analysts said that would put the instant-check program on solid financial ground. But vigorous opposition, led by officials of the National Rifle Association, torpedoed the bill.

Thompson estimates the remaining money will run out this fall. One option is to cut back, including eliminating the checks on holidays when there are fewer gun purchases.

Sheriffs are concerned that if money gets too low, they will be left holding the bag.

“The problem I have right off the top is, obviously, I have not budgeted for this,” Clegg said. “I’m going to have to come up with the funds somewhere. Does that mean pulling a man off the street to do the checks?”

Thompson conceded dealers appeared to be split on the proposed transaction fee to keep the instant-check program solvent.

“We’re certainly not saying people jumped at it with great support,” Thompson said, “but recognized it as the best solution in the inevitable circumstances.”

One person who did not jump was Jerry Sweet, the owner of one of Idaho’s largest gun retailers, Intermountain Outdoor Sports.

Sweet, a National Rifle Association endowment member, contends the fee is unconstitutional because it amounts to prohibited “special taxation on the ownership or possession of firearms or ammunition.”

“If this so-called special taxation, this so-called fee, was imposed on licensed dealers, I then become another unpaid tax collector,” he said. “Are they forcing me to use my time, my property, my investment to collect funds for them?”

Sweet maintains that since the background checks are supposed to protect the public, the public should be paying for them - not just law-abiding gun owners.

There still are several questions about the background checks mandate.

The U.S. Supreme Court is considering a challenge against the Brady Act by sheriffs in Montana and Arizona, who claim the government cannot make them help enforce the law.

There is also a debate over whether the checks have any effect on crime.

While President Clinton and others credit the Brady Act and other gun-control efforts with curbing violent crime, many maintain the background checks really serve no law enforcement purpose.

“They’re fooling themselves if they think someone who really wanted a gun didn’t get one,” Sheriff Clegg said, pointing out that private citizens can sell their handguns without being required to check the criminal background of their buyers.

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The following fields overflowed: CREDIT = From staff and wire reports Staff writer Winda Benedetti contributed to this report.

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