In a scathing editorial published August 18, titled, A Flawed Background-Check System, the New York Times takes to task the Federal Bureau of Investigation for the detrimental effect the agency’s inability to conduct accurate checks has had on job seekers. The Times notes that “F.B.I. background checks are widely viewed as the gold standards but are in fact woefully flawed, often based on fallible and incomplete data.” Of particular concern to the editorial board are inaccurate or incomplete records of those who were arrested, but not convicted, or those who had their cases dismissed or expunged. The Times cites “examples of workers who were either turned away from jobs or fired based on faulty F.B.I. background information,” and contends that the system has caused some to be “unfairly locked out of the job market.”
The Times is right to be critical of the FBI’s –apparent inability to conduct accurate or complete background checks, and to defend the civil liberties of those damaged by these inadequacies. However, the Times editorial board had no such qualms about the efficacy of the FBI’s system earlier this year when it lent its full-throated support to legislation that would have expanded background checks for firearm purchasers, further burdening the FBI’s operations.
On April 17, the Times excoriated the Senate for not passing the Manchin-Toomey-Schumer background check expansion amendment in an editorial titled “The Senate Fails Americans.” A week earlier, the Times ran an editorial that complained that the legislation up for debate didn’t go far enough, noting, “Ideally, the Senate would approve a bill to require background checks for all gun sales.” And on March 23, the Times editorial page touted legislation that would “require almost all gun buyers to undergo a background check,” calling it a “vital step.” The Times made no mention of the innocent people such checks would wrongfully snare.
Many gun purchasers are acutely aware of the problems posed by the FBI’s flawed background checks. In a 2011 report on the FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System, the agency admitted, “Some records used to determine if an individual is eligible to possess or receive a firearm are not complete or up-to-date. As a result, eligible firearm transferees may be subject to lengthy delays or receive erroneous denials even after the completion of a successful appeal.” A 2012 NICS operations report showed that 8.5 percent of all FBI NICS checks were delayed for additional review, burdening roughly 1.6 million gun purchasers, only a fraction of whom were later found ineligible. The report also noted that in 2012, over 4,000 wrongful denials were overturned.
Incorrect FBI checks are so cumbersome to some gun buyers that it has led to the creation of the Voluntary Appeal File. Under this program, eligible gun buyers who repeatedly find themselves the subject of NICS delays based on non-disqualifying records can place their names on file, in order to expedite future checks. According to the 2012 report, there are nearly 25,000 individuals so burdened.
The recent editorial’s emphasis on protecting the rights of those simply arrested for, but not convicted of, crimes might also lead one to believe that the Times is a staunch defender of due process. However, in June, a Times editorial argued that those placed on the “terror watch-list” by the same government agency the Times accuses of being unable to conduct a proper background check should be summarily barred from owning guns. Those on the watch list have not necessarily even met the level of scrutiny required for an arrest.
With the Times recognizing the FBI’s background-check system as “woefully flawed,” it is ironic that the paper would advocate for millions more people to be burdened by it. This latest episode illustrates that the Times is singling out which civil liberties it deems legitimate, and that despite a body of historical evidence and the opinion of the Supreme Court in Heller and McDonald, the individual right to armed self-defense protected by the Second Amendment isn’t one of them.