The NICS system, mandated by Congress as part of the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act, has for nearly 20 years been a centerpiece of the government's effort to block criminals from obtaining firearms. Yet the operation has largely struggled to keep pace with a steadily increasing number of firearm transfers, while maintaining databases of criminal and mental health records that rely solely on voluntary contributions from state and local authorities. Those records are crucial to determining whether prospective gun buyers are eligible to purchase firearms.
"We live off those records,'' Morris said. "That is our bread and butter. ...The misnomer is that FBI has everything that exists on criminal history records in some big repository, and that's simply not true. A lot of data sits out in state and local systems. Being able to reach out and get that information can be very, very challenging.''
Morris said it is impossible to estimate how many records could be missing from the system.
"You don't know what you don't know, right?''
Earlier this month, Attorney General Loretta Lynch, in letters to the nation's governors as part of the administration's executive actions, urged states to provide additional information, saying the existing NICS databases were "far from complete.'' The letters also contained subtle warnings that the FBI intended to publish each state's contribution in the coming months.
"The NICS is a critical tool in keeping firearms out of the hands of prohibited persons,'' Lynch wrote, "but it is only as effective as the information entered into the databases upon which it relies.''
While slightly more than 70% of firearms transactions are allowed to proceed within minutes after buyers appear at the counters of licensed dealers, according to the FBI, the records are especially key to quickly reconciling the remaining transfers that require deeper reviews of state and local data before decisions can be issued on whether guns can be sold.
Depending on the volume of gun sales, at any one time the queue of pending cases — which by law must be resolved within three business days — generally ranges in the several thousand. Recently, those numbers have ballooned as high as 13,000. If the cases, some of which depend on local law enforcement agencies finding paper records to satisfy an examiner's search, cannot be resolved within the three-day period, gun dealers are generally free to complete the sales.
"Some (cases) aren't being looked at until the third day,'' Morris said, referring to the increasing volume and limited staffing.
"That delay queue has grown ... that meter is running.''
Morris said that he would like to limit examiners' caseloads to two reviews per hour to ensure accuracy. But that number has nearly doubled to nearly four cases per hour.
Roof serves as cautionary tale
The enormous stakes are not always apparent, until the first reports of a new mass shooting echo across social media or cable television.
No one recent case underscores the sobering nature of the work here more, officials said, more than an April transaction in South Carolina, reviewed by a veteran examiner at the West Virginia facility.
In that case, which could not be resolved within the three-day period, Dylann Roof was mistakenly allowed to walk away with the .45-caliber handgun allegedly used two months later to kill nine people during an evening Bible study session at the iconic Emanuel AME Church in downtown Charleston.