The FBI’s criminal records database, which has long been known to be incomplete, is garnering new attention following the Newtown, Connecticut elementary school massacre.
The FBI’s criminal records database along with a separate database of records of people involuntarily committed or otherwise ruled mentally ill by a court, are the backbone of the National Instant Criminal Background Check system. Under this system, states and local courts can voluntarily report criminal and mental health commitment orders to the FBI.
According to a New York Times article yesterday:
“Roughly 97 percent of the time, specialists said, the F.B.I. can provide an instant answer, but sometimes an ambiguity — an arrest record that does not say whether someone was convicted, or a common name — requires calling local courthouses to track down the information.
“That can cause delays as local officials search through records, some of which are not yet digitized, law enforcement officials said. If the F.B.I. investigation is not completed within the waiting period, would-be gun buyers are permitted to go ahead.
“Since 2005, 22,162 firearms — including nearly 3,000 this year — have been bought after the waiting period by people later determined to have been disqualified because of their criminal and mental histories, according to an examination of F.B.I. data.”
via Gaps in F.B.I. Data Undercut Background Checks for Guns, New York Times, December 20, 2012
Congress envisioned an easy, quick-to-check system for clearing gun buyers when they created the background check system under the 1993 Brady Bill. I can sympathize with both that desire and with the complications involved in making it happen.
Courts in many states operate their own computer systems which are often unable to communicate with other courts or state agencies, let alone the FBI’s computers. There are 3,077 counties, boroughs, and parishes in the United States and most have multiple levels of court system. Coordinating the efforts of the affected court administrators, county and state officials, legislatures, and federal agencies to create a reliable centralized database system presents a significant challenge.
Even on the state level, thorough records are difficult to come by. Texas’ own criminal record database was found to be missing 1/3 of the criminal records included in a survey by Imperative Information Group in 2008.
There is a solution to capturing most of these missing records, particularly on the criminal history side of the database. I’m hesitant to even bring this up because this is such a volatile issue with parties on both sides of the gun control/gun rights debate often too eager to be offended. However, here we go:
Simply augment the FBI background check with the same research methodology used by employers all over the country – live, hands-on searches of the live records of the courts in each jurisdiction where the individual has lived or worked.
This often would not be completed in the three-day standard promised under the Brady Bill and it would be significantly more expensive than the free federal background check that gun buyers currently undergo. It would also miss older records not reflected on the courts’ current indices and possibly some records missed because of data entry errors by court clerks or human error by the researchers in the courts.
However, it seems to me that if we really want to keep guns out of the wrong hands while still ensuring that law-abiding and mentally-sound citizens still have the right to possess them, the same level of diligence utilized by public and private employers on a daily basis would not be a bad place to start.