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FBI official: 'Perfect storm' imperiling gun background checks

CLARKSBURG, W.Va. — The surge of criminal background checks required of new gun purchasers has been so unrelenting in recent months that the FBI had been forced to temporarily halt the processing of thousands of appeals from prospective buyers whose firearm purchase attempts have been denied.

Since October, the bureau's entire cadre of appeal examiners— about 70 analysts — was redeployed here to help keep pace with waves of incoming background investigations that continued through December when a record 3.3 million firearm sales were processed.

The transfer of examiners, which had left a backlog of 7,100 appeals, is only part of a makeshift reorganization that FBI Assistant Director Stephen Morris said has become necessary to handle a burgeoning workload that expands in the wake of every mass shooting and call for increased gun control that invariably prompt firearms sales binges across the country.

"The last several months, we've kind of found ourselves in a perfect storm,'' Morris said in an interview with USA TODAY. In each of the last six months, the number of background checks has risen steadily, according to FBI records, ending with December's record with more than a half-million over the previous monthly high posted in the aftermath of the 2012 Newtown, Conn., school massacre.

People examine handguns during The Nation's Gun Show in Chantilly, Virginia, on Oct. 3, 2015.
Jabin Botsford | The Washington Post | Getty Images
People examine handguns during The Nation's Gun Show in Chantilly, Virginia, on Oct. 3, 2015.

Since before Thanksgiving weekend, all annual leave for the more than 400 employees of the bureau's National Instant Criminal Background Check System has been canceled. That Black Friday, the system was swamped with 185,345 background check requests on new firearm sales, a new single-day record. Morris said temporary background check examiners also are being pulled from internal construction projects and bureau divisions that oversee the gathering of crime statistics across the nation.

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The near-constant frenzy of activity within the FBI's sprawling complex, four hours away from the nation's capital, may represent the most compelling argument in favor of at least part of President Obama's recent executive actions aimed at reducing gun violence: the addition of 230 examiners to the NICS operation and 200 more agents for nation's chief gun enforcement agency, the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco Firearms.

The new positions are desperately needed, authorities said, to support the seriously stressed NICS system and to prepare for an even heavier workload as a consequence of the central provision of the administration's executive actions. That directive would require an increasing number of private firearms dealers to be licensed, subjecting their customers to scrutiny under the federal background check system.

Some of the administration's most vocal opponents on gun policy, including those who offered initial skepticism or outright opposition when the executive actions were unveiled earlier this month, now appear open to potentially adding the hundreds of requested positions that would require congressional approval.

Senate Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, acknowledged in a written statement to USA TODAY that more NICS examiners "might be necessary.''

Even the National Rifle Association, which assailed the administration's overall gun plan as "political exploitation,'' said that they would "have no objection'' to proposals that would both bolster the ranks of the ATF and the NICS system.

The group, however, remained critical of the plan's call for private gun sellers to obtain federal licenses so that buyers would go through background checks.

"If the addition of these agents are used to apprehend criminals — not to harass law-abiding gun owners — and (the examiners are used) to improve the broken NICS system, we would have no objection,'' NRA spokeswoman Jennifer Baker told USA TODAY.

'Delay queue is growing'

Burrowed in the rolling hills of the West Virginia countryside, the idyllic setting for the NICS operation masks the fraught, politically charged debate that has engulfed national gun policy.

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.

During the background check, Roof's March arrest on felony drug charges was mistakenly attributed to the Lexington County, S.C., Sheriff's Department, not theColumbia, S.C., Police Department, which actually made the arrest. The sheriff's department operates the jail where Roof had been detained.

The Columbia police report included information that Roof admitted to drug possession, which would have triggered an immediate denial by NICS, according to bureau guidelines. But that information was never seen by the reviewer because the FBI's database did not include Columbia police contacts in its list of agency contacts for Lexington County purchase reviews. The reviewer did attempt to reach the Lexington County prosecutor's office, which was handling the drug case at the time, but received no response.

"We are all sick about what happened,'' FBI Director James Comey said during a July briefing when the error was disclosed.

Morris said the Roof case continually "humanizes the process,'' which mostly churns on far outside the public spotlight.

"These are people who are making life-and-death decisions,'' Morris said, adding that analyst in the Roof case remains on the job working new cases every day. Given the information available at the time, authorities have said the examiner did everything possible to appropriately vet the purchase.

"She's a great examiner, too. I'd love to have 230 more of them.''