In the aftermath of the horrific, racially motivated mass shooting in Charleston that left nine people at Emanuel AME Church dead, the FBI revealed that the shooter should have failed his background check when he purchased the murder weapon in April. This tragic error draws attention to dangerous flaws in the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) that we at the Law Center have been critical of since the system’s inception.
To be clear, NICS has prevented over two million dangerous, prohibited purchasers like felons, domestic abusers, drug addicts, and the dangerously mentally ill from buying guns since its inception, saving countless lives. But there is, clearly, much room for improvement to ensure that the failure that enabled the Charleston shooting doesn’t happen again:
- 72-Hour “Default Proceed”: When a firearms dealer conducts a background check on a prospective gun buyer, most results come back instantly: approved or prohibited. But about nine percent of cases require further investigation by federal agents before rendering a decision. However, if the investigator doesn’t return a result within 72 hours due to inconclusive research, inconsistent records, or simple inefficiency, the dealer is legally allowed to proceed with the sale. This is what happened with the Charleston shooter, and it’s appallingly common. In 2012 alone the 72-hour default proceed allowed 3,722 prohibited purchasers to buy guns. Expanding the investigation period to give agents more time to fully investigate gun buyers is widely supported by Americans—including two-thirds of gun owners, and it will unquestionably save lives.
- State Reporting Improvements: Many states fail to report essential information like criminal history, mental health status, domestic violence records, and, especially important in the Charleston case, illicit drug abuse records to the agencies that perform background checks. Increasing NICS funding and changing federal law to require states to report relevant records to the NICS system will close this dangerous gap in the background checks system.
- Universal Background Checks: The best way to save lives from gun violence is require background checks on all private sales, including online and at gun shows. South Carolina has abysmal gun laws (we gave them an F on our 2014 Gun Law State Scorecard), and had the Charleston shooter failed his background check at the gun shop (as he should have), he still would have easily been able to purchase a gun through a private sale, where no background check is required. Eighteen states currently have some form of private sale background checks, but until we pass this smart gun law everywhere, we cannot act surprised when dangerous criminals get their hands on deadly weapons so easily.
NICS is great starting place for protecting our citizens from gun violence, but the system must continue to be improved and we must demand that our lawmakers stand up to the gun lobby and adopt lifesaving policies like universal background checks. Momentum is on our side, with 99 new smart gun laws passed in 37 states since Newtown, and we at the Law Center will continue to fight to keep deadly weapons out of the hands of dangerous people.