The Problem with Our $2.18 Gun-Buyer Background Check
Business + Economy

The Problem with Our $2.18 Gun-Buyer Background Check

Reuters/Yuri Gripas

It costs taxpayers $2.18 to run a background check on would-be gun owners—and Senate Republicans on Tuesday blamed lax enforcement of this simple precaution for the tragic shootings in schools and cities around the nation.

This is how momentum stalls for curbing access to assault weapons, despite the attention generated by the mass shooting last December that killed 20 children and six adults at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.

The Second Amendment and self-defense are the most common refrains from gun advocates, but at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Tuesday a pair of GOP lawmakers tried to put the bureaucracy itself on trial. It is their way of resisting more gun control measures while empathizing with parents such as Neil Heslin, who wept as he told the committee about the killing of his six year-old son at Sandy Hook.

Their argument boils down to this: Don’t restrict the sale of military-style rifles and ban magazines that contain more than ten rounds as proposed by President Obama and California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, if the existing National Instant Criminal Background Check System isn’t being properly implemented.

What was not stressed at the hearing was that this program has received a fraction—4 percent—of its authorized funding.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-SC, pulled out a copy of the 15-question form that potential gun buyers are supposed to complete, noting that “it says that you are subject to prosecution if you provide false information.

“If we’re going to expand background checks, it looks to me like we’re going to have to start enforcing the law that’s on the books,” Graham said. “Because when almost 80,000 people fail a background check and 44 people are prosecuted, what kind of deterrent is that? The law, obviously, is not seeing that is important.”

The remarks drew anger from the flabbergasted witnesses appearing before the committee.They wanted to talk about how to stop violent crimes, not devote their resources and manpower to what seemed in their minds to be endless typing.

“If you think we’re going to do paperwork prosecutions, you’re wrong,” said Milwaukee police chief Edward Flynn, who only minutes earlier had torn into the usual self-defense argument by noting that 82 percent of the victims of shootings have criminal records and “these people should not have access to assault weapons.”

John Walsh, the U.S. Attorney for Colorado, said, “The fact that 76,000 people were rejected, that in itself is a victory.”

Before ringing up a sale, a firearms store must consult with the FBI or other agencies to ensure the buyer doesn’t have a criminal record or is otherwise ineligible. This happened 19.6 million times last year under the National Instant Criminal Background Check System. These background checks do not apply to private sales or gun shows, a loophole the White House also wants to change but many GOP lawmakers—and the National Rifle Association—do not.

The FBI spends about $5 million a year to operate NICS in Clarksburg, W.Va., according to White House budget figures. Also, the government allocates $4 million a year to help states meet reporting requirements for the database—putting the cost of a background check in-line with the price of a Starbucks coffee.

As of last May, data from the Justice Department showed that 30 states were not including noncriminal records—such as mental health—to the database, according to a report submitted last July by the Government Accountability Office.

“Some states are not adequately supplying records of prohibited persons to the NICS instant check system,” said Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, at the hearing. “A search of an incomplete database that fails to conform to existing law does not provide all the safety that the American people have a right to expect.”

Who is to blame for that? Grassley didn’t say, but the budget tables point the finger at Obama and Congress. The 2008 NICS Improvement Act authorized $1.12 billion to be spent upgrading the database over four years. Congress appropriated a fraction of that sum—$51.6 million, or 4 percent of what was authorized.

“As a result, information collection remains uneven, the databases full of gaps,” wrote Frank Campbell, a former deputy assistant attorney general who helped design the program, wrote in an editorial this month for Bloomberg View. “Unlike other proposals in the president’s plan, fully funding NICS improvements requires no new laws. And if Congress and the president do eventually adopt universal background checks, but they don’t also fully fund NICS, the new policy is bound to fail when information remains missing.”

The Fiscal Times’ Brianna Ehley contributed to this report.