GunsFBI to add major law enforcement database to gun background check system

By Ann Givens and Andrew Knapp

Published 11 July 2018

The bureau is getting ready to tap National Data Exchange and its 400 million records to help screen gun buyers. Expert say it would have blocked the Charleston church shooter from obtaining his murder weapon.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation is planning a major addition to the gun background check system, years after examiners’ failure to locate critical information allowed a white supremacist to buy the gun he used to murder nine people in a historically black church in Charleston, South Carolina.

Within about two years, background check examiners will have the option to query a vast, previously untapped database of law enforcement records when vetting potential gun buyers. The National Data Exchange, or N-DEx, which is maintained by the FBI, houses more than 400 million records, including incident and arrest reports and probation and parole documents.

The FBI started exploring the possibility of using N-DEx in 2015, following an internal review that found that Charleston gunman Dylann Roof would have been blocked from legally acquiring his murder weapon had examiners been able to tap it.  

Stephen Morris, who ran the FBI’s background check division at the time Roof bought his gun, said he has long pushed to give examiners access to N-DEx.

“If there is a system that can be searched, we should be searching it,” he said.

In June, a federal judge in South Carolina who dismissed wrongful death lawsuits against the bureau by the victims’ families slammed the FBI for not querying the database when evaluating the fitness of gun buyers. He called the omission “simple nonsense.”

As the FBI considered the switch, the bureau’s Criminal Justice Information Services Advisory Policy Board conducted a pilot study encompassing more than a million gun background checks. It found that with N-DEx added to the tools for vetting purchasers, two dozen gun buyers who would have been waived through were instead kept from acquiring guns they aren’t allowed to have. Seven more were flagged for further research.

The buyers who were barred by records in N-DEx included persons with felony convictions, open arrest warrants, illegal drug use, and misdemeanor domestic violence crimes, according to minutes taken during meetings of the advisory board.

The Justice Department lawyer in charge of setting up the The National Instant Criminal Background Check System, called NICS, during the 1990s also praised the move.

“The idea that the FBI would have info in a database that would prohibit a gun transaction — but not make it available to the background check examiners — just doesn’t make sense,” Frank Campbell said.