Gun Control:

Options For Improving the National Instant Criminal Background Check System

GGD-00-56: Published: Apr 12, 2000. Publicly Released: May 12, 2000.

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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO reviewed the Brady Act's phase I (interim Brady) and phase II (permanent Brady) provisions in preventing the sale of firearms to prohibited individuals, focusing on: (1) how the permanent Brady compares with the interim Brady; (2) under permanent Brady, the advantages and disadvantages of the National Instant Criminal Background Check System's (NICS) background checks conducted by a designated state agency versus by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI); (3) under permanent Brady, the extent to which default proceeds resulted in firearms being sold to prohibited individuals; and (4) the options policymakers have in preventing or minimizing such transfers.

GAO noted that: (1) under both interim and permanent Brady, access to automated criminal history records has been essentially the same; (2) under interim Brady, state or local chief law enforcement officers in some jurisdictions accessed information on some of the disqualifiers (such as mental health records and court restraining orders) that may not be available for background checks conducted by the FBI under permanent Brady; (3) however, under permanent Brady, the NICS Index database now provides automated access to some information on the nonfelony, noncriminal Brady disqualifiers that was not available under interim Brady--that is, information about persons who have been unlawful drug users or addicts, who have been adjudicated or involuntarily committed as mentally defective, who are illegal or unlawful aliens, who have been dishonorably discharged from the military, or who have renounced their U.S. citizenship; (4) although the NICS expanded the amount of disqualifying information centrally available for firearms background checks, the database does not contain all relevant records, most notably federal and state records on unlawful drug users and mental defectives; (5) the FBI has a process for contacting federal and state agencies to obtain this information; (6) under permanent Brady, state agencies generally are better positioned than the FBI to conduct background checks; (7) in addition, state agencies may be better able to interpret their own state firearms purchase and possession laws, resulting in a more efficient and effective background check process; (8) default proceed transactions involving prohibited persons who purchased firearms totalled 2,519 during the first 10 months of permanent Brady; (9) these transactions involved the transfer of firearms to persons who the FBI later determined to be prohibited from receiving firearms; (10) according to FBI officials, these default proceeds occurred primarily because many states' automated criminal history records did not show the dispositions of felony arrests, and efforts to obtain such information took longer than 3 business days; and (11) FBI data for these transfers indicated that an average of 25 business days elapsed between the initial NICS inquiry and the date the FBI initiated retrieval of the firearms.

Matter for Congressional Consideration

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Since the report was issued, Congress has continued to provide federal grants to improve state criminal history records through the National Criminal History Improvement Program. Over $160 million in state grants were awarded during fiscal years 2000-2003, and over 75 percent was used for NICS-related purposes--such as converting manual criminal history records to automated formats and improving disposition reporting. While various other gun control issues--including background checks at gun shows, retention of firearms background check records, and access to immigration and mental health records--have been debated since the report was issued, as of July 2004, no congressional action has been taken to address the other aspects of this recommendation.

    Matter: Congress may wish to consider one or more options for reducing or minimizing the number of default proceed transactions involving the transfer of firearms to prohibited persons. One option is to continue providing federal grants to states for improving the quality and completeness of automated criminal history records. Another possible option is to encourage increased state participation in NICS by providing some form of federal financial assistance. Also, the 3 business-day default proceed requirement of the Brady Act could be amended to treat differently those potential purchasers who had been arrested for disqualifying offenses and arrest disposition information was not readily available.


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