How The National Instant Criminal Background Check System Works The National Instant Criminal Background Check System, also known as NICS, is intended to identify people prohibited under federal law from purchasing firearms from a licensed dealer. However, there are many loopholes in the system.
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How The National Instant Criminal Background Check System Works

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How The National Instant Criminal Background Check System Works

How The National Instant Criminal Background Check System Works

How The National Instant Criminal Background Check System Works

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The National Instant Criminal Background Check System, also known as NICS, is intended to identify people prohibited under federal law from purchasing firearms from a licensed dealer. However, there are many loopholes in the system.

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

Since Sunday's church massacre in Texas, there's been a lot of talk about NICS, N-I-C-S, the acronym for the FBI's National Instant Criminal Background Check System. NICS has been used for nearly 20 years to screen people who want to buy a gun from a federally licensed dealer, including the gunman in Texas. He passed his NICS background check because the Air Force failed to report a conviction that would have disqualified him. As NPR's David Welna reports, it is one of the many flaws critics find in the system.

DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: On the FBI's website, there's an instructional video for prospective gun buyers.

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UNIDENTIFIED MAN: You looking for a gun today?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: I am looking for a gun today.

WELNA: A gun seller hands the woman a pistol.

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UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: That's a nice gun.

WELNA: When the woman tells him she wants to buy the gun, the merchant has her fill out a NICS form for a background check. The check is done by either the FBI or state officials. More than a million Americans have been prevented from buying guns because of the NICS system. Jordan Stein is a spokesman for Gun Owners of America, a pro-gun rights group. He says there have been many false positives that have stopped qualified buyers.

JORDAN STEIN: The NICS system has only been used to disarm law-abiding citizens rather than stopping criminals.

WELNA: But it's not just Second Amendment champions who question the NICS system.

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CHRIS MURPHY: It is an open secret that the existing background check system is broken.

WELNA: That's Connecticut Democrat Chris Murphy speaking yesterday on the Senate floor.

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MURPHY: Let's not pretend we just woke up yesterday in amazement that the records of people who are seriously mentally ill or have been convicted of crimes aren't ending up on the background checks list.

WELNA: Murphy says the problem is not just with the Pentagon. Many state governments have also failed to report cases to the FBI that would prevent people from buying guns. And there's a reason for that.

LAURA CUTILLETTA: The federal government cannot compel the states to send records.

WELNA: Laura Cutilletta is the legal adviser for Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence. She says a study three years ago found that only half of domestic violence cases were being reported by states.

CUTILLETTA: There's no question that there are thousands of records missing. And certain areas are a lot harder than others to capture in the system. So domestic violence and mental health are two of the areas that tend to be under-reported in the system.

WELNA: Congress did pass a law a decade ago giving states incentives to report to the FBI. Senator Murphy says it's been only a partial success.

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MURPHY: And despite the fact that there are a handful of states here that have uploaded no records to NICS - zero - no state has been penalized under that 2007 law.

WELNA: And there's another problem with the NICS system. Gun sales between individuals or at gun shows don't require the NICS background check. That loophole means that even if the Texas killer's conviction had been reported, he could have bought weapons from those kinds of sellers. David Welna, NPR News, Washington.

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