Data­base gaps leave na­tion open to more gun vi­o­lence

In­for­ma­tion could have foiled church at­tacker

Chicago Sun-Times - - USA TODAY 11.10.17 - Kevin John­son

WASH­ING­TON – The Air Force’s fail­ure to trans­mit the crim­i­nal record of the Texas church shooter Devin Kel­ley to the FBI — which could have stopped the sale of a ri­fle used in Sun­day’s mas­sacre — high­lights a long­stand­ing prob­lem with the sys­tems used by the U. S. gov­ern­ment to re­strict firearms sales and track gun own­er­ship.

Fed­eral au­thor­i­ties have openly com­plained for years that in­com­plete data­bases and staff short­ages make it dif­fi­cult to keep pace with the con­stant stream of back­ground checks re­quired of most new gun pur­chasers and to ef­fi­ciently trace firearms used in crimes.

Last year, the FBI of­fi­cial over­see­ing the bureau’s Na­tional In­stant Crim­i­nal Back­ground Check Sys­tem ( NICS) trans­ferred per­son­nel from con­struc­tion projects and units that over­see the gath­er­ing of crime sta­tis­tics to keep up with the surge of re- quests for back­ground checks. The of­fice pro­cessed a record 27.5 mil­lion back­ground checks in 2016.

At the Bureau of Al­co­hol, To­bacco, Firearms and Ex­plo­sives’ Na­tional Trac­ing Cen­ter, ship­ping con­tain­ers and card­board boxes brim­ming with un­ex­am­ined paper pur­chase records have lan­guished in hall­ways and in the cen­ter’s park­ing lot in re­cent years, await­ing trans­fer to an elec­tronic sys­tem.

“Un­less peo­ple get se­ri­ous about these is­sues, the prob­lem is just go­ing to keep get­ting worse,” said Michael Bouchard, a for­mer ATF as­sis­tant direc­tor.

The ri­fle Kel­ley used in Sun­day’s as­sault, which left 25 dead, in­clud­ing a preg­nant woman whose un­born child also died, was quickly traced to the gun­man and a pur­chase in 2016 in San An­to­nio.

By then, it was too late: Records of the troubled air­man’s court- mar­tial in 2012 and con­vic­tion on do­mes­tic vi­o­lence charges for as­sault­ing his wife and at­tack­ing her 1- year- old child with nearly fa­tal force were not trans­mit­ted to the FBI. The fail­ure cleared the way for the ri­fle pur­chase at a San An­to­nio sport­ing goods store.

The back­ground check break­down un­der­scores the vul­ner­a­bil­ity of the sys­tem: a data­base rife with in­com­plete or in­ad­e­quate record sub­mis­sions from law en­force­ment agen­cies.

The FBI de­pends on a data­base that largely re­lies on vol­un­tary record sub­mis­sions from law en­force­ment agen­cies to guard against unau­tho­rized firearm pur­chases.

“Many of the chal­lenges that we have long faced have not gone away, nor will they go away,” said Stephen Mor­ris, a for­mer as­sis­tant FBI direc­tor who over­saw the bureau’s back­ground check op­er­a­tion based in West Vir­ginia.

“We could build the best ( in­for­ma­tion tech­nol­ogy) sys­tem money can buy — the fastest, most ef­fi­cient,” Mor­ris said. “It is only as good as the in­for­ma­tion that is fed into it.”

The NICS sys­tem, man­dated by Congress as part of the Brady Hand­gun Pre­ven­tion Act, has served for more than 20 years as the cen­ter­piece of the gov­ern­ment’s ef­fort to block crim­i­nals from ob­tain­ing firearms. The op­er­a­tion has strug­gled to keep pace with the vol­ume of firearm trans­ac­tions and prop­erly main­tain the data­bases of crim­i­nal and men­tal health records nec­es­sary to de­ter­mine whether buy­ers are el­i­gi­ble to pur­chase guns.

Be­cause of the vol­un­tary na­ture of sub­mis­sions, Mor­ris said, the NICS sys­tem has long been plagued by in­com­plete or out­dated in­for­ma­tion. In many cases, a back­ground check may show a record of ar­rest, but there is no ad­di­tional in­for­ma­tion to in­di­cate whether the case was dis­missed or re­sulted in a felony con­vic­tion that would pro­hibit a gun pur­chase.

The mere record of ar­rest is not enough to pro­hibit a gun sale. FBI an­a­lysts must race to fill such in­for­ma­tion gaps within the three- day time pe­riod al­lot­ted for each check.

The search some­times re­quires in­quiries to po­lice depart­ments, court­houses and pris­ons across the USA.

“I can’t tell you how much ef­fort goes into this type of dig­ging within the short time al­lot­ted,” Mor­ris said.

In Kel­ley’s case, the Air Force not only failed to pro­vide the record of his con­vic­tion, it missed other op­por­tu­ni­ties to alert the FBI to Kel­ley’s le­gal trou­bles. Among them: his ini­tial ar­rest on the do­mes­tic abuse charges and his es­cape in 2012 from a New Mex­ico be­hav­ioral health fa­cil­ity where he was be­ing treated for “men- tal dis­or­ders” be­fore the court- mar­tial pro­ceed­ing.

Po­lice in El Paso cap­tured Kel­ley and noted in their re­port that the air­man — sta­tioned at Hol­lo­man Air Force Base, N. M. — was re­garded as “a dan­ger to him­self and oth­ers,” had been caught sneak­ing firearms on the base and had lodged death threats against his su­pe­ri­ors. “It does ap­pear that there were sev­eral op­por­tu­ni­ties in which in­for­ma­tion could have been fed to the ( FBI) sys­tem,” Mor­ris said.

The Air Force is in­ves­ti­gat­ing the break­down.

Even when records do ex­ist, the case of Dy­lan Roof, who fa­tally shot nine peo­ple in 2015 in a South Carolina church, shows vul­ner­a­bil­i­ties in the sys­tem. Dur­ing Roof ’s back­ground check re­lated to the pur­chase of a .45- cal­iber hand­gun in 2015, a prior ar­rest was mis­tak­enly at­trib­uted to the Lex­ing­ton County, S. C., Sher­iff ’s Depart­ment, not the Columbia Po­lice Depart­ment. The Columbia po­lice re­port in­cluded in­for­ma­tion that Roof ad­mit­ted to drug pos­ses­sion, a de­tail that would have re­sulted in an im­me­di­ate firearm pur­chase de­nial.

SCOTT OLSON/ GETTY IM­AGES

Joyce Mires leaves flow­ers Thurs­day at a me­mo­rial to those killed at the First Bap­tist Church.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.