Feds suspend processing NICS denial appeals

At least one of President Barack Obama’s executive actions could address the growing backlog of denial appeals to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System.

Earlier this month, with the issuance of executive actions, Obama detailed a plan that includes expanding the workforce of the NICS system with 230 employees and extend operating hours to 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

As of October, all of the department’s nearly 70 appeals personnel have been temporarily reassigned to assist in running initial criminal background checks as a result of the recent surges in checks, USA Today reported. The transfer of appeals examiners has led to a backlog of 7,100 appeals.

And the FBI’s NICS appeals website indicates that as of mid-September the appeals services team was still processing appeals received in June 2015.

“The last several months, we’ve kind of found ourselves in a perfect storm” as a result of a steady month-by-month increase in the number of background checks needing to be performed, FBI Assistant Director Stephen Morris told USA Today. The agency has also had to suspend annual leave for more than 400 of the NICS employees as a result of the recent spike in background checks.

According to FBI background check statistics, at the end of 2015 NICS had processed more than 23.1 million background checks — 10.4 percent more than in 2014. The last two months of the year saw the highest numbers of background checks, with more than 2.2 million being performed in November and 3.3 million in December.

The National Rifle Association, generally a staunch opponent of any gun control-related proposals, has indicated they wouldn’t object to plans to increase the ranks of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and NICS employees. But the gun lobby also said in an article Wednesday that suspending the appeals process could be seen as a “sinister” way to encourage support for the rest of Obama’s plan.

“Suspending the NICS denial appeal process takes on an even more sinister character when one contemplates the chief gun control measure advocated by the Obama administration,” the article reads, and argues a universal background check system would leave those erroneously flagged unable to legally buy a firearm.

While the need for additional examiners exists, the need to improve agency funding to pay for their hiring will require congressional cooperation — something the President could find hard to come by in the Republican-controlled national legislature.

Attorney General Loretta Lynch testified before the Senate Appropriations Committee last week, and explained that the NICS program would need $121 million to operate for 2016, and an additional $35 million on top of that for 2017.

Kim Del Greco, the NICS section chief, told The Wall Street Journal that agency, expecting an increase in checks, has been hiring contractors this month to alleviate the work load and expected to add 100 additional staff in 2016, with another 100 expected to come in 2017 if funding is approved.

Another issue causing the backlog of appeals is inconsistent and incomplete state crime and mental health data, which are submitted by the states voluntarily, Morris explained to USA Today.

“We live off those records. That is our bread and butter,” Morris said. “The misnomer is that FBI has everything that exists on criminal history records in some big repository, and that’s simply not true. A lot of data sits out in state and local systems. Being able to reach out and get that information can be very, very challenging.”

Morris explained that having more complete records could help speed up the background checks that come up requiring further review after the initial process.

Alongside the President’s executive actions, Lynch issued a letter to the governors of all 50 states to explain the importance of the FBI receiving complete criminal histories to running proper background checks.