One of the enduring myths of the gun debate is the notion that the FBI-NICS background check system is broken and probably beyond repair. Or to put it in the usual Gun Nation vernacular, we don’t any more gun-control laws because the laws we have now don’t work. And then what happens is that someone who passes a NICS check does something stupid with a gun, like the Umpqua shooter or the man and wife in San Bernardino, and see, we told you so, the system really doesn’t work. Which then becomes the rationale for preventing background checks on all gun transfers because since the system doesn’t work, why ask it to do more?
Actually, I think the system not only works very well but, as I am going to show below, many states are constantly trying to upgrade it so that it will work better. The reason I think the system works is because the low denial rate (at or below 1%) tells me that most legal gun commerce is exactly that – people buying guns who are legally allowed to own guns. The fact that ‘bad guys’ find other ways to get their hands on guns has absolutely nothing to do with whether or not NICS is working the way it was designed to work.
Despite rumor-mongering and plain stupidity to the contrary, the Brady system was not established as a crime-fighting measure; it was initially designed to delay the purchase of handguns for five days. Would this procedure have kept guns out of the hands of criminals? Maybe yes, maybe no. But that was not the law’s intent. The intent of the law, which was revised when an instant background check was substituted for the five-day waiting period to allow for a manual background check, was to prevent the impulsive purchase of handguns by anyone who wanted to use a gun to violently attack themselves or someone else. When the National Research Council concluded their review of research on whether the NICS system had been an effective instrument in reducing crime, they didn’t say that NICS had been ineffective, they said that more research was needed in order to determine Brady’s true effects. You can thank the Republicans who cut CDC gun-research funding for this gap.
When the Brady bill became law, every state was given two choices in order to comply with the requirement that every first-time gun sale first be approved with an instant background check. The check could be run by the FBI-NICS operation located in West Virginia, or it could be run by the state itself, this latter system being known as a Point of Contact system, or POC. Everyone uses the same three databases, which are compiled nationally but obviously require data from every state. And here is the problem which creates headaches for NICS administrators and excuses for the gang which doesn’t want any controls over guns, namely, that in our federal system, every state has a different way of keeping track of crime, every state uses different software for their systems, every state has gobs of legacy data that is often not even online, every state developed its own criminal-data system without the slightest interest or concern about how crime data was being created, used or stored in any other state.
Now if you listen to Mike Huckabee and the other Republican clowns, you might think that the NICS system is so badly broken that there’s no sense in trying to fix it at all. In fact, over the last seven years, 26 states have spent more than $95 million improving their NICS data, the biggest chunk of dough going to New York, with second-place Florida not far behind. Much of this money has gone for improving interfaces between criminal and mental health reporting, tracking involuntary commitments, updating county systems and training staff. And when was the law passed which authorizes this funding? Under a pro-gun President named George W. Bush.