Gun Background Check System Lacks Money, State Involvement

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The national dialogue on gun control has focused attention on the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS). Federally-licensed gun dealers in all states are required to run a check through the system on any customer looking to purchase a gun. Critics, though, see a flaw in the program. While all states are asked to contribute information to the system — on their convicted criminals, drug abusers, mentally ill — they are not required to. Audie Cornish speaks with Steve Buford, an administrator for the NICS program in California, which is one of the leading state contributors to the database.


We're going to hear more now about something the president just said, about needing stronger background checks. At the heart of the system and to keep guns out of the hands of dangerous individuals is something called the NICS. That's the National Instant Criminal Background Check System. The Justice Department created the NICS in response to the Brady Bill and implemented it in 1998.

It requires every licensed gun dealer in every state to contact an FBI office in West Virginia every time some attempts to purchase a gun. If the individual props up on a prohibited list, if they're a violent felon, have been placed in a mental institution by a court order or are subject to a restraining order, they are denied. No gun. But there's a big problem, which is that a majority of states don't contribute that information to the database in the first place.

One state that does participate fully is California and Steve Buford is the assistant bureau chief at the California Bureau of Firearms. He joins me now from Sacramento. Welcome to the program, Steve.

STEVE BUFORD: Thank you. Hi, Audie. How are you?

CORNISH: Good. So to start, what happens in the instance of, say, a conviction? How do the records get from, I guess, the court to the database? How does that work?

BUFORD: In California, the courts are required to send that information to us electronically and, in some cases, on paper. We take that information. We upload it to our California system, and then the California system also feeds into the federal system.

CORNISH: And over time, we've heard about several obstacles that some states may have in terms of keeping their databases current. For instance, mental health records. Now, California had had a central records keeping for mental health records since 1991. But it took you guys more than a decade to actually start sending those to the federal government. What were some of the obstacles and what do you think other states are facing?

BUFORD: I think the obstacles are, one, confidentiality of the data. I think there's concern about how those records will be used, especially when you're talking about sending those records to the federal government. In California, we have a very restrictive law that says those records can only be used for purposes of that background check. And I think, over time, you know, before we sent those records to the feds, we were very concerned about that. And we had to get those assurances out of the way.

CORNISH: Another obstacle states have discussed is in terms of getting up-to-speed, they might want help or grant money from the federal government. And yet, because of the gun restoration policy, this is the policy that allows people who have been blocked because of mental health records, to have their gun rights reinstated. Some states have - that's actually been an impediment to them applying for funding. Can you talk about why that is?

BUFORD: A little bit, you know. I think the big issue there is, you know, who bears the burden of implementing and maintaining that restitution program? The grant monies that the feds have placed out there for these particular programs just aren't sufficient enough to fund the program. So there has to be a sufficient, you know, you can't just lay it out there and say, go implement this program. There has to be sufficient funding and it can't be small amounts of funding. It has to be sufficient to fund the entire program.

CORNISH: Now, with all of the advances that California has made in its background checks and its databases, does it matter if the federal database, NICS, is still problematic?

BUFORD: There are some gaps in the system, but I'd rather have the system with the gaps than no system at all, no federal system at all. You know, we use federal records all the time to deny people the legal and lawful aliens, you know, here illegally and unlawfully, they could be criminals. We use it to deny people that are mental defectives in other states and people that are under restraining orders.

So I think it's important to have that information regardless of the gaps. I think we should focus on how do we build that system out, how do we eliminate those gaps. That's where the discussion should start at is eliminating the gaps, providing sufficient funding for all states to contribute and participate. I think that's the best thing that we can do as a nation, you know, and as a people.

CORNISH: Steve Buford is the assistant bureau chief at the California Bureau of Firearms. He spoke to me from Sacramento. Steve, thank you so much for speaking with us.

BUFORD: Thanks for having me.

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