NICS Firearm Background Check System Seriously Flawed

NICS emblem
The basic design and operating procedure of the NICS (National Instant Criminal Background Check System) database is that data is delivered by at least sixty disparate sources, each with their own data design, their own policies, and their own budget limitations. Each state and the District of Columbia must submit crime data, mental health data, and records of domestic abuse restraining orders. Further, that data is derived from thousands of police and sheriff’s departments and courts. Each faces dwindling resources to maintain the completeness and integrity of their data, as well as the timely delivery of that data to the federal system. The Department of Defense, TSA, Homeland Security, Customs, and other government agencies also are required to channel data to the NICS system. And it is with those multiple sets of data, in various states of completion and accuracy, that the problems arise related to integration and data integrity.

To that end, and to resolve the limitations of the NICS protocol, President Obama, with five Executive Orders, is putting pressure on the federal government to clean up the system to operate as it was originally envisioned. For that purpose, he has committed $70 million.

One of the main stumbling blocks is the development of data from mental health sources… data shows that 25 states have submitted fewer than 100 mental health records; six have reported zero. This means that the cause most attributed to gun violence – mental illness – and one set of data that could help reduce the number of guns sold to those who should not have them, is incomplete or missing. And the problem is not just poor record transfer; between HIPAA’s privacy restrictions, the reluctance by many health care professionals to commit to paper their concerns, and the politics of many states which are less inclined to submit reports, the problem is extremely difficult to solve. It is not simply a matter of passing data through, from state to federal systems, which was the original intent.

After Virginia Tech, the Bush Administration signed, in January 2008, new legislation to improve the record-keeping between states and federal systems. To date, five years after it was signed, there has been little improvement. Officials blame privacy laws, antiquated record-keeping, and a severe lack of funding for the failure to comply.

Where do we go from here?

In order to bring the NICS system up to expectations, systems designers will need to redesign and fund federal AND state data collection systems to allow a quicker, easier, less expensive transfer of data between sources. However, the NICS system should be used as the framework for improvement, not a complete redesign of the system. The key will be in funding the best and most expeditious way for disparate systems to be brought into a singular compliance. Further, the political policies that have kept agencies and states from quickly and completely sharing their date will have to be resolved.

And Congress will have to step up to address the 60% of all gun purchases that do not, at this time, run through gun shops and the NICS system. A system where all private sales pass through federally licensed gun dealers [FFLs] to insure a paper trail of the transaction, is necessary, with thorough background checks implemented.

This element of the solution to end gun violence will not be quick, it will not be inexpensive, and it will not be without stepping on toes. But, when complete, it will provide a more comprehensive system to address the purchase of firearms, purchase by those who are, by Constitution and law, legally able to buy and own weapons.

McAllister is a 30-year Systems Analyst and Architect who designs and implements large capacity data systems for both private sector and government.

Read more observations by McAllister at Shoot From the Left Hip.