WASHINGTON, DC] – With gun sales spiking since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, U.S. Senators Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) and Chris Murphy (D-CT) urged Senate leadership and appropriators to include funding in the next relief package to address the dangerous backlog of background checks. The Senators called for an additional $20 million for the National Criminal History Improvement Program (NCHIP) to ensure states and local governments are able to maintain accurate records and keep guns out of the hands of abusers and others seeking firearms illegally.
“Prohibited purchasers put our communities in imminent danger,” wrote the Senators to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY), Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Richard Shelby (R-AL), and Senate Appropriations Vice Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-VT). “As gun sales continue to surge, we must provide additional funding to improve the submission of records into NICS in any future pandemic-legislation and work to pass the Background Check Completion Act in the immediate future. With these actions, we can keep firearms out of the hands of people who are prohibited from having them and, most importantly, save lives.
NCHIP was reauthorized in the bipartisan Fix National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) Act, and with additional funding, could address the unprecedented surge in background checks seen since March 2020. Without accurate records and timely background check processing, individuals who would otherwise be legally prohibited from obtaining guns may be able to obtain a weapon, as was the case with the shooter who killed nine people at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina.
In June, Blumenthal and Murphy introduced the Background Check Completion Act, which would close a loophole in existing law that allows gun sales to proceed if a background check is not completed after 72 hours, even if the gun buyer is not legally allowed to purchase a gun. The bill would require a completed background check for every gun buyer who purchases a gun from a federally-licensed gun dealer. The full text of the legislation is available here.
Blumenthal and Murphy also recently joined a letter to House and Senate leadership led by U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) to include the NICS Data Integrity Act, a bill that would allow the FBI to keep gun-purchase records until background checks are complete, in the next coronavirus relief package. Under current law, the FBI is required to purge incomplete background checks from its systems if they are not finalized within 88 days, a practice that often results in guns being sold without finished background checks.
The full text of today’s letter can be found here and below.
Dear Leader McConnell, Leader Schumer, Chairman Shelby, and Vice Chairman Leahy:
We are writing to urge you to include an additional $20 million for the National Criminal History Improvement Program in the next coronavirus relief package. Reauthorized in the bipartisan Fix NICS Act, this critical funding will help ensure that states and localities, already struggling financially because of the pandemic, are able to maintain accurate records in the face of an unprecedented surge in firearm sales. At a time when domestic violence is on the rise, we must ensure that firearms stay out of the hands of abusers and others seeking firearms illegally.
As the COVID-19 pandemic rages across the United States, the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) has seen an unprecedented surge in background checks. In March 2020, when many states began to take necessary action to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus, there were more than 3.7 million background check transactions.. This alarming trend has continued in subsequent months. June 2020 was the busiest month in the program’s history with more than 3.9 million background check transactions. NICS reported its busiest week from March 16 to March 22, 2020; seven of its 10 busiest weeks have occurred between February and June 2020. Now more than ever, Congress must do everything in its power to support the background check system to ensure guns do not fall into the wrong hands.
During the firearm background check process, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) or, in point of contact states, state authorities query NICS to determine if a prospective purchaser or transferee is legally prohibited from purchasing or possessing firearms. Most background checks are completed almost instantaneously; however, incomplete records can extend the time it takes to complete the record check because the case requires more investigation. If a final determination has not been made after three days, federal law allows a gun to be transferred at the Federal Firearm Licensee’s discretion—a result known as a “default proceed” transfer.
State and local authorities are responsible for submitting adjudication records to NICS, and most people who fail background checks do so as a result of an adjudication at the state or local level. However, many states and localities struggle to submit complete and timely records to NICS, submitting incomplete records or no records at all for some adjudications. Poor record submission can allow a person who is prohibited by federal, state, or Tribal law from possessing firearms to erroneously pass a background check or obtain a gun without a completed background check. This can lead to the transfer of a firearm to a person who is legally prohibited from purchasing or possessing firearms. Our nation knows all too well that this loophole in federal law can have dangerous consequences: in 2015, an ineligible individual obtained his firearm through a default proceed transfer and committed the horrific mass shooting at Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. This is why the “default proceed” rule is also known as the “Charleston loophole.”
New data released through a Freedom of Information Act request made by Everytown for Gun Safety highlights how the danger caused by the “default proceed” rule has been compounded during the COVID-19 pandemic. In March 2020 alone, it is estimated that at least 1,138 delayed background checks resulted in a firearm being obtained by prohibited purchaser because of this rule. The actual number for this one month may actually be significantly higher given delays in state and local offices. For reference, an estimated 3,960 prohibited purchasers obtained firearms this way in all of 2018. As law enforcement agencies face shrinking budgets, staffing shortages, and new challenges in the face of this unprecedented pandemic, submitting complete records to NICS may be more burdensome than ever. Given the surge in gun sales, however, it should be a top priority. It is imperative that the records upon which the background check system relies be complete, accurate, and up-to-date. Two years ago we came together in a bipartisan fashion to pass the Fix NICS Act to improve our NICS recordkeeping system and reauthorize NCHIP. To facilitate the timely submission of records into NICS, an extra $20 million should be included for the National Criminal History Improvement Program in the next supplemental appropriations package. This flexible funding will ensure that states, state and local courts, local governments, and Tribes receive the guidance and resources they need to ensure that NICS operate effectively.
While additional funding for NCHIP is necessary given the current surge in firearm sales during this pandemic, it is only a short-term solution to a systemic problem. Five years ago, we first introduced the Background Check Completion Act, which would close the loophole by requiring a completed background check for every gun buyer who purchases a gun from a federally-licensed gun dealer. In the past five years, thousands of ineligible, dangerous people have been able to skirt around background checks and make illegal firearm purchases. The unprecedented numbers we now see today is a direct result of unjustifiable congressional inaction on this issue. It is beyond time for the Senate to take action and pass this legislation. No check, no sale must be the rule.
Prohibited purchasers put our communities in imminent danger. As gun sales continue to surge, we must provide additional funding to improve the submission of records into NICS in any future pandemic-legislation and work to pass the Background Check Completion Act in the immediate future. With these actions, we can keep firearms out of the hands of people who are prohibited from having them and, most importantly, save lives.
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