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
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
"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
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
Officials in Missouri and Kansas say they're making
"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
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
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
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