LEXINGTON, Ky. - Recent shootings such as the attack on a Colorado movie theater that left 12 people dead and dozens more wounded are putting a spotlight on gun background checks. Kentucky is submitting more information to a federal background check database, but challenges remain.
When a customer is ready to make a purchase at Antique & Modern Firearms in Lexington, the process is fairly simple and quick.
“Less than 10 minutes typically,” says employee Steve Fore, who is also a concealed carry permit instructor.
The customer fills out a form and Fore makes a phone call to a federal database called the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, or NICS.
“The value of the NICS index is that a valid hit is an immediate deny, which allows us to issue that immediate determination to the federal firearms licensee,” says Jill Montgomery, acting unit chief of NICS for the FBI.
Things that prohibit a person from buying a gun include a felony indictment, dishonorable discharge from the military, a domestic violence conviction, drug abuse, and being committed to a mental institution. Federally licensed gun dealers are required to run a background check through NICS, private sellers are not.
Gun safety advocates say the mass shooting in Aurora, Colorado, the 2011 Tucson shooting, and the Virginia Tech massacre highlight the importance of gun background checks.
But across the country, many state records, especially those related to mental health and drug abuse, aren’t being sent to the database of automatic gun disqualifiers. A report from the Governmental Accountability Office issued this summer found that states face technological, legal, and funding challenges in sharing the information.
“Our job is to ensure that every crime that’s committed, and we do our due diligence, when a person is convicted, it goes into that federal database,” says Sgt. Rick Saint-Blancard, a spokesman for Kentucky State Police.
KSP is the agency that sends criminal records to the FBI. Last year the General Assembly passed a law mandating that records of people who have been “adjudicated mentally defective” be sent to the NICS index. Saint-Blancard says so far, 2,900 mental health records from Kentucky have been sent to the FBI.
What Kentucky doesn’t yet have is an automatic reporting system to NICS for cases involving drug convictions and addiction.
The Commonwealth actually leads the nation in the number of background checks requested through the NICS database, more than two million a year. Sgt. Saint-Blancard says that’s because state police run a monthly background check on all Kentuckians with a concealed carry permit, regardless of whether they go to a store to buy a gun.
“We’re the only state that does that and we all know that behaviors change. People change. And we get a chance to address that proactively.”
Gun enthusiast Steve Fore believes the current background check system works well. When he hears news stories about James Holmes, the suspected movie theater shooter, Fore says questions beyond gun control policies come to mind.
“Where were his parents? He didn’t wake up one morning and suddenly decide he was Batman. Where was the school administrators? What happened? Where was the breakdown?”
But critics of current gun control legislation say the NICS database is still not as robust as it needs to be. A group called Mayors Against Illegal Guns also says background checks should be required of all firearm transactions, including purchases at gun shows and those involving a private seller.