The Department of Justice building in Washington, D.C. on Thursday, Aug. 27, 2015. (Photo: Susan Walsh/Associated Press)
An audit released Wednesday finds federal authorities deny about one percent of all attempted firearm sales using the National Instant Criminal Background Check System.
Of the 51 million background checks processed through the Justice Department between 2008 and 2014, the FBI denied 500,000 gun purchases. Of those, agents with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives passed only 558 applications to local U.S. Attorney offices, who in turn considered prosecuting about half of the cases referred.
While audit findings show both the FBI and the ATF maintain “effective internal control systems” preventing prohibited persons from buying guns from federally licensed dealers in 99 percent of cases, Inspector General for the Department of Justice Michael Horowitz said the system needs “a number of key improvements.”
“Although the overall error rate is low, an isolated breakdown can have tragic consequences,” he said Wednesday. “For example, the defendant charged with killing members of a Charleston, South Carolina church, should have been prohibited from buying his weapon. However, in his case, the NICS process was unable to obtain timely and accurate data from local agencies – which would have blocked that sale.”
Horowitz’s comments reference the so-called “Charleston loophole” — the clerical error that allowed a 21-year-old man to buy a .45-caliber Glock handgun in South Carolina without a completed background check last year.
The gunman opened fire during a Bible study at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston on June 17, 2015, killing nine parishioners. He pleaded not guilty the following month to 33 federal offenses, including hate crime charges, and will stand trial in January.
FBI Director James Comey said in the weeks after the shooting inaccurate data collected from the gunman’s criminal record spurred a breakdown in the agency’s background check process. He was arrested on felony drug charges in March 2015, but clerical errors in the local law enforcement reporting process didn’t record his admission of guilt — a detail, Comey said, should have returned an automatic rejection to the firearms dealer in Columbia where the shooter bought the gun.
Instead, the dealer proceeded with the transaction after the three-day waiting period had expired, despite the gunman’s “pending” background check — a decision Comey says is well within the rights of the law.
The Charleston shooter’s case remains one of the most high-profile breakdowns of the NICS system to date and has spawned legislation extending waiting periods on gun sales in multiple states.
An analysis of mass shootings between January 2009 and July 2015, released by Everytown for Gun Safety, found NICS should have denied gun sales in 44 out of 116 cases.
Horowitz said Wednesday the audit findings reveal states processing their own NICS transactions failed to update the federal database in 630 of 631 transactions reviewed.
State point of contacts processed 57 percent of the more than 119 million NICS transactions processed between 2008 and 2014.
“To help ensure the completeness of the NICS database, states are required to update it with supporting documents when a prospective purchaser attempts to buy a firearm and is approved, denied, or delayed,” Horowitz writes in the audit’s executive summary. “These failures mean the NICS database is incomplete, and increases the risk that individuals found by states to be prohibited purchasers could be able to purchase firearms in the future.”
The office recommends the FBI encourage state compliance with update requirements to NICS and to “explore legislation or regulations providing for timely record updates to include criminal history, the NICS Index, and status updates, and to identify best practices.”
James C. Langenberg, section chief of the Inspection Division’s External Audit and Compliance Section, agreed with the audit recommendation, though admitted it “would be the most challenging to implement.”
“The NICS Section will … explore updating the agreements for the NICS Point-of-Contact (POC) states to include recommended time frames to provide updates,” Langenberg said.
He said the agency will also draft an official document for state POCs to follow when reporting information to NICS and will partner with the FBI and the DOJ to explore legislative and regulatory changes that would allow agents to access multiple criminal databases, such as the National Data Exchange and Sentinel, when approving or denying background checks.