Thursday, Jan. 17, 2002 story:PUB_DESC
Gun-control group says nearly 10,000 criminals have bought guns from dealers

The Kansas City Star
N.B.  This is the web headline.  The print version from p. A1 [jump to A6] of the 1 star Metro edition says "Some felons buy guns as records are reviewed"  with a nice picture of a .38 S&W SPL snub nose.  The revolver appears to be unloaded.

Incomplete background checks have allowed nearly 10,000 criminals -- including hundreds in Missouri and Kansas -- to buy guns, despite a federal law prohibiting them from doing so, says a report issued Wednesday by a gun-control organization.

Most states are lagging in computerizing the records used in the instant background checks that are supposed to ensure that felons, domestic abusers and the mentally ill do not purchase guns from licensed dealers. Missouri and Kansas have computerized only about half of their felony records, the report found.

The "haphazard and ineffective job" done by states means that "America's front-line defense against illegal gun buyers is in a dangerous state of disrepair in all but a few states," according to the study by the Americans for Gun Safety Foundation, based in Washington, D.C.

The passage of the Brady Law in 1993 made everyone attempting to buy guns from licensed dealers subject to background checks. The system was at first manual, and law enforcement officials had five business days to check the backgrounds of buyers. Beginning in December 1998, an instant check system was implemented, designed to streamline the process by using computerized records.

The system mostly works well, the report found. Of 7.7 million background checks conducted in 2000, 72 percent took only a few minutes, and 95 percent were complete within two hours.

But the law has a loophole that thousands of illegal buyers have been able to use to buy guns: If a background check takes longer than three days to complete, gun dealers in most states can complete the sale and provide the gun to the buyer.

A background check that takes that long is 20 times more likely to uncover a prohibited buyer than a typical check, the report said.

But by the time that information gets to the dealer, the gun often is long gone, said Jim Kessler╣, policy director of the foundation.

Between December 1998 and June 2001, that meant that 9,976 guns were sold to felons who didn't pass the checks.

"These are actual people who got guns and went though a background check," Kessler said. "That's a real number. Everybody went through a background check, and there wasn't an answer. When the call came back `No', the dealer said, `Well, they already have the gun.' "

The foundation cross-checked federal and state records in its months-long study.

There may be even more illegal buyers, Kessler said: Three states did not provide information to the study. Plus, many states don't include in their databases records for the mentally ill and domestic abusers, whom the law also prevents from purchasing guns from licensed dealers.

In June 2000, then-Assistant FBI Director David R. Loesch called such sales "a very significant cause for concern" in testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

"They present public safety risks and place resource demands on law enforcement agencies, who must then go and retrieve the firearms," Loesch said.

Often the guns go unretrieved, Kessler said.

The federal government has spent more than $300 million since 1994 to help states automate their records. Missouri has received about $7 million; Kansas about $4 million.

But both states rank low in automating their records.

Missouri has computerized just 52 percent of its felony records, the report found, and 406 persons bought guns in Missouri who shouldn't have been able to, the sixth-most in the country.

Kansas has computerized only 46 percent of its felony records, and ranked ninth for illegal gun purchases, with 375.

The states with the lowest percentage of computerized felony records are Indiana and Tennessee, which have just 6 percent of their records automated. North Carolina has the highest percentage automated, with 94 percent. The national average is 58 percent.

"This has generally not been high on a lot of states' priority lists," Kessler said. "Improving records might not be the sexiest crime-fighting tool out there. But it's incredibly important."

Officials in Missouri and Kansas say they're making progress.

"The FBI would like us to be in the 90 percentile," said Capt. Timothy McGrail of the Missouri Highway Patrol, who coordinates Missouri's records automation. "Realistically, within the next 18 to 24 months we should get to that (level)."

Barbara Tombs, the Kansas official responsible for records automation, called it a "high priority."

"It is taking longer" than officials would like, Tombs said. "But we're making great strides."

The main problem has been the difficulty of getting information from a wide variety of agencies, such as courts and prosecutors, that are generally strapped for money and time, McGrail said.

Tombs said that many of them keep paper records in different ways, making integration difficult.

Kansas' efforts have been further hindered because a software company hired to automate the state's records went out of business, Tombs said.

McGrail said increased funding would help speed the process; but in an age of federal and state deficits, such help would seem unlikely.

Besides the slow computerization of criminal records, many states also don't include information on the mentally ill, the report said.

Missouri and Kansas are among 33 states that do not automate any records of persons who have been involuntarily institutionalized but not convicted of a crime, according to the report.

"Disqualifying mental health records are so rarely provided to law enforcement and the (background check) system that it is almost impossible to prevent a mentally unstable person from purchasing a gun," the report said.

The main obstacle is the concern over patient privacy by mental health professionals, Tombs said.

Another area of concern highlighted in the report is that of persons with domestic violence records.

Twenty states do not supply information to the system on those with domestic violence misdemeanor convictions or under domestic violence restraining orders, the report said. Kansas, for example, does not provide information on persons against whom restraining orders have been filed.

Among the report's recommendations: States should make records automation a higher priority, and gun dealers shouldn't complete sales until background checks are completed.

The latter seems to have helped on a small scale: Nine states prohibit the completion of sales without a completed background check, and in eight of those states, the report found no sales to illegal buyers.

National Rifle Association spokesman Andrew Arulanandam said the blame for the incomplete system lies with two of the NRA's favorite political targets.

"That third of a billion dollars wasn't spent wisely by the Clinton White House and the Reno Justice Department," Arulanandam said. "If there are any issues with the integrity of the database, we'd lay it fully at the feet of Bill Clinton and Janet Reno."

He also questioned the agenda of the group that released the report.

The Americans for Gun Safety Foundation was founded in 2000 by Internet billionaire Andrew McKelvey. It is meant as a moderating influence in the charged debate over gun rights. Unlike many gun-control groups, it supports Americans' right to own guns. But it tempers that support with the message that gun ownership requires great responsibility.

Nevertheless, NRA leaders have excoriated the group. In a speech at the NRA's national convention in Kansas City last year, Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre vilified the group as "just a new name for the same old anti-gun lobby."

The NRA's chief lobbyist, James Jay Baker, said in a speech the same day that the group "has nothing to do with gun safety. It has an agenda of licensing, registration and lawsuits, but calls itself moderate and centrist."

 ╣ Jim Kessler is the former gun advisor to Senator Schumer (D-NY) [back]