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James Jay Baker Letter On Background Checks

Tuesday, May 22, 2001

The March 29, 2001, USA TODAY article highlighting the shortcomings in our nation`s system for doing instant background checks on gun buyers labors in vain to identify the real causes of these problems. Let me clarify that these are not just problems of the National Instant Check System (NICS), but were true of the original Brady waiting period as well.

The root of the problem goes back to 1993 when Congress passed the Brady Act, calling on the FBI to create NICS. This system was to be designed to screen criminal history records instantly--without any waiting period--on all customers attempting to make firearms purchases from federally licensed dealers. Congress spent over $300 million and gave the Department of Justice five years to upgrade state criminal record histories so that the promise of "instant check" would live up to its name.

Over those five years, numerous members of Congress wrote to then-Attorney General Janet Reno and asked for a status report on NICS. Every single one of those inquiries went unanswered.

What happened?

In March 2000, the General Accounting Office (GAO)--the investigative arm of Congress--released details of their investigation into the FBI`s implementation and operation of the NICS. This audit indicated that several significant failures of the Justice Department and the Clinton Administration prevented the system from performing as Congress intended.

Some of the more glaring failures highlighted by the GAO audit are at the most rudimentary level of database development and management. For instance, the GAO found no back-up system in place. Additionally, instead of building a dedicated database containing the necessary information to do the job, the FBI strung together existing databases (with volumes of irrelevant data) creating a system that is balky and inaccurate. The end result is a system that had yet to meet its own standards for system security when it was audited 15 months into its existence.

Perhaps the most perplexing question was why the Department of Justice apparently failed to use the allocated resources to buy the necessary computer hardware and software to develop and advance an "instant check" database. Sources inside the Clinton-Reno Department of Justice have told us that money was largely wasted instead on items like fingerprinting equipment. In truth, no one can really say how the money was spent as the Clinton-Reno Department of justice never performed a systemic audit.

Again, what happened?

The answer is politics, Clinton style.

President Clinton was determined not to allow NICS to succeed. The Department of Justice, Attorney General Reno and the Clinton administration dragged their feet to fuel the political fire in support of a waiting period. Success of NICS would have granted a victory to one of the former President`s bitter enemies, the National Rifle Association.

Here we stand, 8 years later and with over $300 million in taxpayer money spent. Unfortunately, all we have to show for it is a woefully inadequate system. But, times have changed. We have a new administration, a new Justice Department and new members of Congress. It is my sincere hope that together we can finally develop an efficient "instant check" system that will deliver its promise to the people--a promise supported by the NRA in congressional testimony for nearly 15 years.


James Jay Baker
Executive Director
Institute for Legislative Action, National Rifle Association

Background Checks/NICS

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Established in 1975, the Institute for Legislative Action (ILA) is the "lobbying" arm of the National Rifle Association of America. ILA is responsible for preserving the right of all law-abiding individuals in the legislative, political, and legal arenas, to purchase, possess and use firearms for legitimate purposes as guaranteed by the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.