WASHINGTON, July 30 (UPI) -- Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., introduced legislation Tuesday to close major gaps in the federal firearms background check system that in a 30-month period allowed some 10,000 felons and others prohibited from gun ownership to obtain weapons.
"This legislation fixes a huge hole in our system," McCain said in a statement, "a hole that delays legitimate firearms purchases and allows criminals and other prohibited buyers to obtain guns."
McCain said the hole is the "faulty records of the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS)."
He cited a report issued by the Americans for Gun Safety in January that showed "millions of records are missing from NICS' database." The study showed that over a 30-month period, 10,000 criminals and others obtained a license without a full background check "because the records couldn't be checked properly within the three days allowed by federal law."
The bill was sponsored by McCain, Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, and Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass. Craig joked at a news conference that it was the "odd quad," referring to the fact that the sponsors came together on this legislation despite widely differing views on gun control.
Gun control advocates applauded the bill. The Americans for Gun Safety Foundation said the measure "promises to be the first major gun safety action to be taken by this Congress." The AGS noted that a companion bill passed the House Judiciary Committee by a vote of 30-2 last week.
AGS President Jonathan Cowan applauded the bipartisan support for the bill. He said it "proves" senators with "opposing views in the gun debate" can come together in support of an "effective gun safety measure."
Andrew Arulanandam, a spokesman for the National Rifle Association, credited Craig with getting fixes in the law that protected legitimate gun owners. He noted that the legislation as introduced effectively "eliminates" the future prospect of a gun tax to pay for the NICS system. He said it has a more "concise definition of mental health records" and "enhanced" privacy protections to protect health records that are provided to the FBI.
Arulanandam complained however that "after a decade and one-third of billion dollars," NICS "has yet to deliver" on an instant record check.
McCain said that "72 percent of background checks are approved and completed within minutes, but 5 percent take days to complete for one reason only -- faulty records force law enforcement into time consuming searches to locate final disposition records for felony and domestic violence convictions."
The bill will require that federal agencies, such as the Immigration and Naturalization Service and the Veterans Administration to provide NICS with the records all those disqualified from purchasing a firearm. For INS it would mean sending millions of records of those here on tourist visas, student and all other non-immigrant visas to NICS. But this requirement comes at a time that the INS record keeping system is under criticism. There an estimated 4.5 million undocumented aliens in the United States who have either overstayed visas or entered the country illegally and one of the tasks of President George W. Bush's $38 billion homeland security plan is to integrate INS with other federal agencies.
Another major problem since the federal government began checking gun registrations 10 years ago was the condition of state records.
"For felony records," McCain said, "the typical state has automated only 58 percent of its felony conviction records. The FBI estimates that out of 39 felony conviction records, 16 million of them lack final disposition." This means, aides said, that the others have to be checked by hand in court houses and this is often not completed before the deadline to issue the registration has been reached.
McCain said mental health records are in a more deplorable condition. Gun registration checks are designed to discover people who would be a danger to themselves or to others with a firearm. McCain said that 33 states keep no mental health disqualifying records and that no state "supplies mental health disqualifying records to NICS." He said the General Accounting Office estimated that there are 2.7 million mental health records -- not all of which would disqualify someone to register a gun -- that should be in NICS database but that only 100,000 are available and nearly of those came from federal Veterans Administration Hospitals.
There are also major gaps in drug abuse records and domestic violence records. "On the issue of domestic violence," McCain said, "twenty states lack a database for either domestic violence misdemeanants or temporary restraining orders or both." He said the Justice Department estimates that there are nearly two million restraining order records missing from the NICS database. Restraining orders are court orders that prohibit one party in a domestic dispute from approaching or threatening the other. Studies of case after case of domestic violence that included firearms attacks found that a gun was purchased after a judge granted the restraining order.
McCain's bill provides for $250 million a year for three years to help states improve background check systems and automate systems.