Three large U.S. cities last week filed a federal lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Defense, alleging that many service members who are disqualified from gun ownership haven’t been reported to the national background check system.
The odd thing about this particular lawsuit is that the facts really aren’t in dispute: Military officials, although they can’t comment directly on the lawsuit, have previously acknowledged problems with their reporting, and a Pentagon spokesman this week said a review of the policies and practices at each branch of the armed forces is continuing. Last month, the Justice Department ordered a federal review of the database. (The official name of the database is the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, but it’s better known by its acronym, NICS).
All of those actions occurred in the wake of the shooting last month at a Texas church. The gunman, Devin P. Kelley, killed 26 people in the Nov. 5 shooting before taking his own life, authorities say. But Kelley, a former Air Force serviceman, shouldn’t have been allowed to buy the rifle he used in the attack: He had been convicted in a 2012 court martial of assaulting family members and served 12 months’ confinement. Since federal law prohibits selling a gun to a person who has been convicted of a crime involving domestic violence against a spouse or child, the conviction should have prevented Kelly from purchasing firearms. But the Air Force failed to report the conviction to the NICS database.
What’s most worrisome about the lapse that let Kelley slip through the system is that it’s not nearly the only one. The Pentagon’s watchdog agency said this month that it had found a “troubling” number of failures even this year by the military services to alert the FBI to criminal history information.
Obviously, for the national database to do its job, it needs to have access to as much relevant information as possible.
In the wake of the 2007 mass shooting at Virginia Tech, committed by a mentally ill man named Seung-Hui Cho, Congress passed a bill to strengthen the system with more criminal records and mental health information. And the bill did just that: Data from the Department of Justice data suggest the number of federal and state records entered into the system has increased significantly since the law was signed in January 2008.
Now, a new piece of legislation pending in Congress aims to close some of the remaining gaps in the system. The so-called “Fix NICS Act” would improve the reporting of domestic violence convictions. A Senate version of the bill would impose a financial penalty by barring bonuses for the heads of federal agencies that fail to report the convictions. The measure also would reward states that improve their reporting, and would provide funding for those efforts.
This bill is not controversial. One of the senators leading the push for the measure is John Cornyn, a Texas Republican and a strong gun-rights advocate. The measure has bipartisan support. The National Rifle Association backs the bill. This should not be a difficult burden for Congress to lift — although the House of Representatives managed to gum up the works by linking its version of the bill to partisan legislation that would allow national concealed-carry reciprocity. It’s exactly this sort of legislative maneuver that too often manages to sink important works of legislation such as the Fix NICS Act.
Congress left Washington for its holiday break with a long list of unfinished business, including work on relatively uncontroversial but nevertheless important areas. (The list includes, of course, the renewal of the Children’s Health Insurance Plan.) Is it too much to ask Congress to take care of these matters quickly upon its return, before it again bogs down in the gridlock that appears to be its usual state of affairs?