Garbage in, garbage out: Why gun background checks are shamefully flawed

Quadray Bryant’s indictment

Garbage in, garbage out.

America’s only real tool for keeping guns out of the hands of convicted felons and domestic abusers is hopelessly flawed, as I’ve written before. It’s time we woke up to this. It’s easier — much easier — to lie and get a gun in America than it is to lie and get a credit card.  And plenty of folks who shouldn’t be able to purchase guns slip through the cracks and get them.  I know a fair amount about gun control. but I know a lot about how databases work.  And I can tell you they don’t work when the data is garbage.

The stakes are far higher than normal with this database, however. Garbage in, mass murder out.

Count me among the crowd who will say that before we pass new laws aimed at gun control, we need to enforce the ones we have. We don’t. Gun background checks, as they work today, don’t work.

Texas mass murderer Devin Patrick Kelly shouldn’t have been able to buy his murder weapons for Sunday’s rampage.  But he did, because his violent military record wasn’t entered into the National Crime Information Center (NCIC) database used to see if applicants should be prohibited from buying a gun.  Garbage in, garbage out. Charleston shooter Dylan Roof wasn’t supposed to get a gun, either. He slipped through the cracks, too.  Roof’s background check was delayed because he was in the middle of adjudication and data on him was “dirty.”  As the law is written, he was entitled to his gun purchase when the check wasn’t complete within 72 hours. Seung-Hui Cho bought the gun he used to kill 32 people at Virginia Tech even though he had a disqualifying mental health incident in his background.  Because Virginia state officials didn’t send that record to the FBI, Cho wasn’t barred from purchase.

Quantrey Bryant wasn’t supposed to buy guns, either. Not only was that convicted felon able to do so, he bought guns while in jail.  All he had to do was lie about who he was.  Garbage in, garbage out.

Each of these incidents puts in sharp relief a serious flaw with the background check process. Kelly’s data was simply missing; Roof exploited the 72-hour limit (called “default proceed”) imposed on law enforcement to return a background check result; Cho’s story highlights that many state records never make it into the NCIC data.  Here’s a chilling statistic from the Department of Justice: “At the end of 2014, there were  7.8 million active warrant records in state warrant databases and 2.1 million wanted person records in NCIC.  This means
that over 70 percent of the records in the state databases are not available in NCIC.”

Garbage.

Bryant’s story demonstrates how archaic background checks are.  It shows that there is often no identity authentication — NONE — when purchasers buy guns.  Fake IDs, straw buyers, outright ID theft — those are all easy ways to evade gun purchase background checks.

Let’s review what happens when you apply for a credit card, a car loan, or even a job. Your Social Security number is collected and matched against several other pieces of personal information, then sent to a company that — at a bare minimum — assigns you a risk score based on a complex calculation which weighs hundreds or even thousands of data points.  In some cases, the firm on the other side of the transaction looks at pages and pages of details about your financial and address history.

On the other hand, it’s probably harder to get into a bar in most places than to buy a gun with a fake ID.  All that stands between an ID thief and a gun purchase is the judgment of the dealer looking at what is represented to be a state-issued ID. It doesn’t have to be a driver’s license in most states. A handful of states that impose additional requirements, such as Maryland, which now requires fingerprint to help with authentication during conduct background checks.

But in the majority of states, gun shops have only responsibility to question the identity of a gun purchaser. Most are required to ask for an ID that is “commonly accepted for the purpose of identification,” but standards vary. In an open letter written by the ATF to gun dealers in 2011, designed to clarify that documents which include only a P.O. Box for an address are not sufficient, the ATF explains this meager standard:

“Ask the purchaser if the address indicated on the identification document is the actual residence address, receive an affirmative response, and have no reason to believe the address on the identification document is not the actual, legal residence address of the purchaser,” it says. In other words, dealer’s choice.

Read numerous audits of America’s gun background check process, and you’ll find a host of other maddening and fundamental flaws.  States are supposed to tell the feds when they deny a gun purchase.  Often, they don’t. In a test sample of some 631 checks, DOJ auditors found states didn’t’ inform the FBI about the outcome 630 times.  Even worse: While poor local record-keeping was blamed for letting Roof get his gun for Charleston, the FBI actually had his record in a separate database called the “National Data Exchange.” Checking it “would have revealed a prohibiting incident,” the DOJ now says. But the FBI is in fact prohibited by regulation from using that database for gun background checks.

Then, there this study which shows the database is particularly bad at producing timely, accurate results for domestic violence offenders.

Garbage in, garbage out.

This isn’t a left-right issue.  You don’t have to look hard to find people on both side of the gun debate who will argue for better background checks.

The National Rifle Association is among the groups that has criticized the background process as flimsy.

“If we are not going to enforce the laws that are on the books, it not only engenders disrespect for the law but it makes law-abiding gun owners wonder why we are going through this exercise we are going through now,” said Jim Baker, an  NRA spokesman, back in 2013. At the time, Baker was criticizing the Obama administration for the infinitesimal conviction rate for lying on gun purchase applications.

Efforts to improve or modernize background checks are often met with resistance, however. A simple change, like requiring all background checks be completed before a sale no matter how long they take, has met strong resistance (though some retailers, like Walmart, are voluntarily following that rule.)

Anything more dramatic faces far more opposition. The  Handgun Purchaser Licensing Act of 2015   introduced by Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) and other Congressional Democrats, would have required gun buyers to submit photographs and fingerprints nationwide when purchasing. It was received with fierce opposition immediately.

“It is a remarkably Draconian assemblage of 2nd Amendment infringements,” wrote U.S. and Texas Law Shield, which says it is a group devoted to legal defense of self-defense. “The  … proposal is nothing more than an attempt to buy-off states so they will enact more restrictive buying-and-selling hurdles than they currently require.”

Gun rights advocates have opposed licensing of gun owners for years, claiming it would amount to a first step towards criminalizing gun ownership — by creating a federal database of gun holders. Intelligent people can debate that issue.

No intelligent person can debate how bad background checks are today. Fixing that database should be a national priority, immediately. It’s impossible to create meaningful background checks without modernizing the data used to conduct them. and without finding some clear method for accurate data entry and applicant identity authentication.  Other issues doom the database, too.

For example, there’s no real way to take guns away from owners who lose their right to have them after a felony conviction. When Oregon tried to pass a law that created a legal procedure to take guns away from people deemed a threat to family members or friends — such as menacing ex-boyfriends — the Internet practically melted down. Garbage in, garbage out.

Until those issues are squared, until we get serious about background checks, other gun control measures are also doomed to fail.

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About Bob Sullivan 1137 Articles

BOB SULLIVAN is a veteran journalist and the author of four books, including the 2008 New York Times Best-Seller, Gotcha Capitalism, and the 2010 New York Times Best Seller, Stop Getting Ripped Off! His latest, The Plateau Effect, was published in 2013, and as a paperback, called Getting Unstuck in 2014. He has won the Society of Professional Journalists prestigious Public Service award, a Peabody award, and The Consumer Federation of America Betty Furness award, and been given Consumer Action’s Consumer Excellence Award.

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