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Multiple States Miss Reporting Deadline For Improving FBI Background Checks For Gun Purchases

In this 2013 photo, handguns are displayed in the sales area of gun range in Sandy Springs, Georgia. The scoflaw states flouting 2017 legislation aimed at fixing the FBI's faulty background check system have not been publicly named yet.
Associated Press
In this 2013 photo, handguns are displayed at a gun range in Sandy Springs, Georgia. The scofflaw states flouting 2017 legislation aimed at fixing the FBI's faulty background check system have not been publicly named yet.

A year after President Donald Trump signed legislation requiring states and federal agencies to add more information to the database that gun dealerships use during firearms purchases, a few states have missed a key deadline.

States were supposed to submit implementation plans for improving what they report to that database — the FBI's National Instant Criminal Background Check System — by March 25. 

As of about a week after the deadline, 46 states and the District of Columbia had submitted the required plans, U.S. Justice Department spokesman Wyn Hornbuckle said.

The Department of Justice has not yet released the list of states that failed to meet the deadline. Those states risk forfeiture of compliance incentives, but there aren't penalties as such for noncompliance.

» RELATED | Go to more stories from the Guns & America project

The Fix NICS Act

In November 2017, just a week after a shooter took the lives of 26 people at a church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, lawmakers introduced legislation aimed at fixing the FBI's faulty National Instant Criminal Background Check System, or NICS.

The NICS database is supposed to prevent criminals from being able to buy a gun by flagging disqualifying factors like prior felony convictions. That won't happen if the purchaser's charges are not listed in the database.

The Air Force failed multiple times to report the Sutherland Springs gunman's domestic abuse convictions, which should have disqualified him from buying a gun.

States submitting data to the NICS system is voluntary and many records are never uploaded to the system. At least 25% of felony convictions are not available in NICS, according to a 2013 report by the nonprofit National Consortium for Justice Information and Statistics.

Enter: the Fix NICS Act.

The law requires states to create a detailed implementation plan to improve what they report to NICS.

States are given incentives, such as preference for Justice Department grants, for complying.

"This bill aims to fix what's become a nationwide, systemic problem," said Republican Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, who co-authored the legislation after the shooting. "So we can better prevent criminals and domestic abusers from obtaining firearms."

States had one year to submit their plans, making the deadline March 25, 2019.

The Department of Justice has until the end of the fiscal year in September to disclose which states are not in compliance. Congress will be given a summary of the plans.

In February, Cornyn; Sen. Chris Murphy, a Democrat from Connecticut; and several other senators sent a letter with 22 questions to U.S. Attorney General William Barr, asking for an update on the performance of the NICS system and urging compliance with the Fix NICS Act.

Cassandra Crifasi, a professor with the Johns Hopkins University's Center for Gun Policy and Research in Baltimore, said the law will help states identify weaknesses in what they report to the FBI's background check database.

"I think the main goal of the Fix NICS Act is to sort of try to fill in those gaps — elements that make it too easy for states to either delay reporting or not report at all," Crifasi said.

KERA is part of Guns & America, a national reporting collaborative of 10 public media newsrooms focusing attention on the role of guns in American life. You can find more Guns & America coverage here, and learn more about the collaboration here.

Anthony Cave reports gun culture as part of a new national reporting collaborative called Guns & America.