Database gaps leave nation open to more gun violence
Information could have foiled church attacker
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.
Joyce Mires leaves flowers Thursday at a memorial to those killed at the First Baptist Church.