Gun dealers up to speed National system to check customers 'working fine'; Phones caused shutdown; Less than 1 percent of applicants denied nationwide, FBI says


The new national system of instant background checks for potential firearms purchasers is living up to its name after all.

After an ignominious start marred by long delays and a midday shutdown when the system was introduced Nov. 30, Maryland gun dealers say most reviews by the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (or NICS) are being completed in a couple of minutes.

While some dealers describe the system as intrusive and unnecessary, they have largely muted the anger and frustration they expressed on the first day, when they were unable to make sales of shotguns and rifles because they could not complete the calls needed to make the checks.

"The system seems to be working fine," said Al Koch, manager of Barts Sports World in Glen Burnie.

"The first two days, I was really worried about my business," he said. "It's still an inconvenience, but the problems seem to have been worked out tremendously."

Technical problems with a telephone switching system that caused the system to be shut for an hour and a half on its first day of operation have been corrected, said a spokesman for the FBI's data processing center in Clarksburg, W.Va., which conducts the background checks.

Glitches 'smoothed out'

"We ran into a few glitches in the beginning. Things have pretty much smoothed out," said Steve Fischer, the spokesman.

The nationwide system expands the background approvals required for handgun purchasers under the 1993 Brady Act to include buyers of rifles and shotguns as well as those redeeming handguns that they have pawned.

Federal law prohibits firearms purchases by those convicted of or under indictment for felonies; people who have had a dishonorable military discharge or are under a restraining order for domestic violence; and those who have been diagnosed as mentally ill.

Under NICS, each gun dealer has a code that allows the seller to access the system through a toll-free number. Applicants are then checked against the Criminal Justice Information System and other databases.

Though the automatic five-day waiting period for approved handgun purchases has been eliminated under the system, Maryland's seven-day waiting period for handgun buyers remains in effect.

In its first two weeks of operation, the system processed 372,565 background checks on potential firearms purchasers nationwide, according to the FBI.

Of those, 77 percent of applicants were given immediate clearance to purchase guns, the FBI said. Less than 1 percent, or 3,348, were turned down.

The remainder of the applications required additional analysis and clarification; the law gives the FBI up to three days to respond to an applicant if the information in the databases is inconclusive.

Those figures do not include statistics from 16 states that perform checks for handguns and long guns, and 11 states, including Maryland, that conduct checks for only handguns.

About 12.5 million guns of all kinds are sold each year in the United States, and another 2.5 million guns are redeemed each year from pawnshops.

NRA files suit

On Dec. 1, the day after the system took effect, the National Rifle Association filed suit in federal court in Washington to prevent the FBI from keeping lists of people who buy guns.

The Justice Department said the FBI records on buyers would be kept for six months or less.

Patrick Loughlin, manager of Valley Gun in Parkville, said the problems with the system occurred within the first couple of days and criticized the FBI for not instituting a "trial run" before the law went into effect. But he said, "Actually, it's working pretty darn good.

"We're getting reports in two to three minutes, which is the way the system is supposed to work," he said.

Larry Albright, owner of Albright's Gun Shop in Easton, said most of the delays he has gotten in getting approvals involved potential purchasers with "ordinary names, like Smith and Jones."

Albright said he has lost "a couple" of sales to out-of-town customers whose applications were delayed, but he said no applicant has been denied.

"It has gotten better," he said of the system. "It's still a nuisance. But it has not been like the first two days. I didn't get through the second day until 10 o'clock at night."

Albright complained that introduction of the system subjected law-abiding citizens to a new bureaucracy and "got the entire country sidetracked from the real issue" of crime.

"The focus has not been on the violent criminal and the repeat offender," he said.

Pub Date: 12/26/98

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