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A look at how background checks are conducted for gun buys

UPDATED: Sat., March 10, 2018, 7:59 p.m.

SEATTLE – When someone buys a weapon from a gun dealer in the U.S., they are subjected to a background check to see if they have a criminal record, mental illness or other issues that prevent them from owning weapons

It’s a process that has received attention following recent mass killings and as Congress pushes to improve the background check system.

Here is an explanation about the process:

How do background checks work?

In most cases, the first step in buying a firearm is to fill out a form that asks a list of questions to find out if the buyer can legally have a gun.

The person must check a box to reveal whether he or she has been convicted of a felony, is a fugitive from justice, has been dishonorably discharged from the armed forces, is a subject of a domestic violence restraining order or has been found by a court to have a mental illness, among other things.

If the person answers, “yes” to any of the questions, they are blocked from buying the gun. If they answer “no,” the next step is for the dealer to run the buyer’s name through the FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System, or NICS, to see if any records show the buyer was not telling the truth.

The FBI boasts on its website that it takes about eight minutes to process a background check over the phone. If a gun dealer uses an online check, it takes less than two minutes.

Are there gaps in the system?

Critics point out that the background check system is riddled with issues that let problematic buyers slip through the cracks.

For example, if nothing comes up on the background check search, the buyer walks out the door with the firearm. If something turns up but the records can’t immediately be found, the FBI then has three days to identify the problem. If they fail to meet that deadline, the dealer must release the gun to the buyer.

That’s what happened with Dylann Roof, the man who fatally shot nine people at a South Carolina church in 2015. The FBI failed to confirm a pending drug charge against Roof within the three-day waiting period, and he was able to take the gun home.

Some people have proposed extending the denial period to two weeks to give law enforcement more time to conduct a thorough investigation.

In most cases, if gun buyers take the weapon home, but records later shows they’re prohibited from having one, federal agents have to go take the firearm back.

How many background checks are run?

A 2016 report by the Justice Department’s Inspector General said the FBI processed 51 million NICS transactions between 2008 and 2014, and only 556,496 were denied, about 1 percent.

States handled 68 million NICS transactions during that same period. The Inspector General’s report didn’t say how many of the state cases were denied.

The FBI reports that since NICS started in 1998, there have been 1.5 million denials, with the majority being because the person had been convicted of crimes.

More than 25 million background checks were run through NICS in 2017, according to the Department of Justice. Searches have steadily increased since the 8.5 million hits in 2000. Kentucky leads the country in requests, with more than 400,000 in January 2018.

How do mental health records get reported?

Submitting mental health records to the system is one of the more complicated and fractured pieces of the reporting puzzle. Not all agencies understand what must be sent, so many records are missing.

After the Virginia Tech shooting in 2007, in which a shooter with an extensive mental illness record was able to purchase guns, the Government Accountability Office conducted a study to find out how states handled mental health reporting.

The study found that 12 states had increased their reporting between 2004 and 2011, but “technology, legal and other challenges” kept some states from sharing mental health records. Some states were reporting criminal records related to drug use, but in 2012, the Department of Justice showed that 30 states were failing to make noncriminal records available.

The National Shooting Sports Foundation, based in Newtown, Connecticut, has a program that tracks legislation and rates states based on reporting. Pennsylvania ranks the highest, with 831,886 mental health records submitted as of Dec. 31, 2016. Wyoming is at the bottom, with only seven records sent to NICS, the group said.

Whose job is it?

In most states, gun dealers contact the FBI directly for background checks. In others, they contact the state.

Making it even more complicated, some states serve as the point of contact for handguns but not rifles and shotgun purchases, which are screened by the FBI.

In Washington state, the NICS check for the long gun can happen within minutes, while the handgun check can take up to 10 days, said Kyle Moore, spokesman for the Washington State Patrol.

Another challenge is weapons sold at gun shows or between individuals. Those transactions are only subjected to background checks if the seller is a federally licensed firearms dealer. If they aren’t, then most of those sales do not require background checks – something Democrats in Congress have long fought to change. Only nine states and the District of Columbia require gun show and private party gun sale background checks.


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