Here's how a gun background check works

Published: Feb. 27, 2018 at 10:54 PM CST
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The background check to purchase a firearm may seem quick to someone at the register of a gun store, but the process at work is complicated.

The FBI maintains a database called the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, which shortens to NICS. It’s a melting pot of information from the National Crime Information Center and the Interstate Identification Index.

The idea is that one of those databases may be missing information, but it’s unlikely for all of them to be incomplete.

When a gun store employee calls in a transaction to NICS, the system pings a person’s history within minutes and comes back with instructions to proceed, deny or delay. A “delay” means more information is needed, but if it isn’t resolved in three business days, it defaults to “proceed.”

The system is robust in preventing convicts from trying to purchase a gun legally. In 2014, the system stopped 90,895 people from buying a gun. Of those they prohibited, nearly 96 percent were blocked because of a criminal record, according to the FBI.

The remaining 3.9 percent had been disqualified for mental health reasons.

Mental health is an area where many people who use the background check system hope to see improvements. Unlike a criminal conviction, this topic has more gray area, and can vary state-to-state.

In Missouri, the courts send mental health decisions to the FBI. But, those are courtroom decisions, such as when a defendant is declared unfit to stand trial. They are prohibited from buying a gun, as are people who have been committed to a mental institution.

However, if a police officer is concerned about a person’s mental health, but they haven’t committed a crime or spent time in a facility, it can be trickier.

“I've been in law enforcement for 20 years,” 417Guns owner Brent Ball said. “I can tell you that if I feel like there's something that needs to be reported I don't know where to report that. I can report it up the chain, but you talk up the chain and they don't know where it goes.”

In 2016, the Department of Health and Human Services modified its approach to privacy in order to boost NICS’s effectiveness. Previously, the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) could have shielded some mentally ill patients from appearing in the background check system’s radar.

“The information that can [now] be disclosed is the minimum necessary identifying information about individuals who have been involuntarily committed to a mental institution or otherwise have been determined by a lawful authority to be a danger to themselves or others or to lack the mental capacity to manage their own affairs,” according to the department’s web site.

Another element of the system is “points of contact.” Some states require dealers to conduct a background check through a state or local agency, which could turn up things that a national database like NICS doesn’t have. Missouri is not one of those states.

Finally, there’s Form 4473, which gun purchasers will need to fill out every time they buy a gun from a licensed dealer. It asks the expected questions (are you a felon, are you mentally fit, etc.) but it’s more of an ultra-legal receipt.

The buyer fills out information about their criminal, military and mental history, and the seller fills out information about the transaction. Then, the seller either calls the NICS or starts the electronic background check process. If the sale goes through, the form won’t leave the store the gun was purchased at for 20 years. If it the sale’s denied, it won’t leave for five years.

“Everything's there that should be caught through them asking the questions [on the form],” Ball said. “If the system's working correctly they should catch it - if it's been reported.”