Bipartisan Bill to Fix Gun Background Check System Introduced in Senate

National Shooting Sports Foundation offers support for the bill

Getty Images

A bipartisan group of senators introduced a bill designed to address failures in the FBI's gun background check system on Thursday.

The Fix NICS Act would implement punishments for federal agencies that fail to comply with criminal reporting requirements, including prohibiting bonuses for political appointees at failing agencies. It would reward states that properly report records with federal grant preferences and incentives. It would also require the attorney general to produce a semi-annual report on whether or not federal agencies are complying with reporting requirements.

The eight senators attached to the legislation—John Cornyn (R., Tex.), Chris Murphy (D., Conn.), Tim Scott (R., S.C.), Richard Blumenthal (D., Conn.), Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), Dianne Feinstein (D., Calif.), Dean Heller (R., Nev.), and Jeanne Shaheen (D., N.H.)—said it is an important step to preventing further lapses in the gun background check system like the one that allowed the Texas church shooter to obtain his guns.

"For years agencies and states haven’t complied with the law, failing to upload these critical records without consequence," Cornyn said in a statement. "Just one record that’s not properly reported can lead to tragedy, as the country saw last week in Sutherland Springs, Texas. This bill aims to help fix what's become a nationwide, systemic problem so we can better prevent criminals and domestic abusers from obtaining firearms."

The Texas church shooter was able to pass an FBI background check and purchase firearms in the years after he was convicted in a court martial of assaulting his ex-wife and stepson because the Air Force failed to submit his disqualifying criminal record to the FBI. "Initial information indicates that [Devin] Kelley's domestic violence offense was not entered into the National Criminal Information Center database by the Holloman Air Force Base Office of Special Investigations," Ann Stefanek, an Air Force spokesperson, said earlier this month.

The senators behind the bill said ensuring the Interstate Identification Index (III), National Crime Information Center (NCIC), and National Instant Criminal Background Check System Index (NICS) include all relevant records for a background check is necessary to keep people prohibited from gun ownership from purchasing firearms.

"These provisions will help enforce public safety protections that could mean the difference between life and death," Blumenthal said in a statement. "Non-reporting now puts people at lethal risk—riddling a system that should keep guns away from killers with gaping holes. The federal background check program is only as good as the information that is provided to it. Mass murderers in Sutherland Springs, Charleston, and Blacksburg were legally prohibited from accessing firearms, but gaps in NICS allowed each of them to walk out of a gun store with the weapons used to commit their crimes."

Congress has attempted to fix reporting problems within the gun background check system before. After it was revealed that the Virginia Tech shooter passed a background check despite having disqualifying mental health records which were never reported to the FBI, Congress passed the NICS Improvement Amendments Act of 2007, which implemented grant incentives for states who fully comply with reporting requirements, a grant penalty for those that didn't, and created an independent statutory obligation for federal agencies to report disqualifying criminal records to the system.

It remains to be seen how effective the Fix NICS Act of 2017 could be, given the failure of the NICS Improvement Amendments Act of 2007 to ensure compliance with reporting requirements from federal agencies.

Gun-rights groups supported the 2007 law.

The National Rifle Association said, "the end product is a win for American gun owners" at the time. It has yet to comment on the 2017 bill, but the National Shooting Sports Foundation, the gun industry's trade group, has already issued a statement supporting it.

"We commend Sen. Cornyn for his leadership to encourage state and federal agencies to enter all applicable records in the FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS)," Lawrence G. Keane, senior vice president for the group, said. "This legislation will provide states with the necessary resources to promptly and efficiently provide disqualifying records to NICS on those who are prohibited under current law from possessing firearms. Federally licensed firearms retailers rely upon NICS to prevent the sale of firearms to prohibited persons. This legislation will fix NICS so that background checks are accurate and reliable."

Update 5:02 p.m.: The NRA has issued a statement in support of the bill.

"The National Rifle Association has long supported the inclusion of all legitimate records in the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS)," Chris W. Cox, the executive director of the NRA's Institute for Legislative Action, told the Washington Free Beacon. "While federal law prohibited the Texas shooter from possessing a firearm, he was able to pass a background check because the Air Force failed to transfer his conviction record to the FBI.  We applaud Sen. John Cornyn’s efforts to ensure that the records of prohibited individuals are entered into NICS, while providing a relief valve for those who are wrongly included in the system. The NRA will continue to support efforts to make the background check system instant, accurate and fair, while protecting the rights of law-abiding gun owners."