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House Votes To Heighten Background Checks For Gun Purchases

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Democrats in the House want to tighten the nation's background check system for firearms purchases. They are voting today and tomorrow on bills to expand the system to cover private gun sales and, more controversially, to give background checkers more time to do their job. As NPR's Martin Kaste explains, it's an attempt to make up for persistent gaps and mistakes in the background check system.

MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: Gun control groups call it the Charleston loophole. That's a reference to the murder of nine black people in a Charleston church in 2015. The white man who killed them was not supposed to be able to buy a gun because of a drug charge. But the federal background check computers had incomplete and mistaken information, so the sale of his Glock handgun went through. South Carolina Congressman James Clyburn says the checkers simply didn't have enough time to get the right information.

JAMES CLYBURN: If one little error is made - you may key the wrong letter in or the purchase of the gun might give the wrong address - it could throw the background check out of whack. And you may need a little more time to clear up what the error may be.

KASTE: For decades, federal law has said that if a background check isn't completed in three business days, the gun purchase can go ahead. Clyburn has a bill to increase that to 10 days with the possibility of extending it again another 10 days.

CLYBURN: If somebody is going out and needing to buy a gun within two or three days, that person is probably up to no good.

KASTE: But gun rights groups have come out strongly against this expansion of background checks to private sales and especially against the longer deadlines. Michael Hammond is legislative counsel for Gun Owners of America.

MICHAEL HAMMOND: Well, you know who is in a hurry to get a gun - perhaps a woman who has a abusive stalker, perhaps ex-husband, who has threatened to kill her. She's probably in a hurry to get a gun.

KASTE: The Democrats' legislation is a response to the gaps in the FBI's National Instant Criminal Background Check System, or NICS. The most notorious case of this was the man who killed 26 people in a church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, in 2017. He was allowed to buy guns because the Air Force had not properly reported his court-martial for assaulting his wife and stepson. Last year, Congress passed a law called Fix NICS, which created new incentives for better data reporting to the system. And Rob Wilcox with the gun control group Everytown For Gun Safety says that legislation did help things, but they want more.

ROB WILCOX: We need to put all the pieces into - of the puzzle in place. We need records in the system. We need law enforcement to have enough time to do the background check. And most importantly, we need a background check on every gun sale.

KASTE: Still, the NICS database does seem to be improving or at least growing. There are now 19 million active records in the system. That's a jump of more than 3 million in two years. The number of records from military courts has more than quintupled. But problems persist. Just last week, an inspector general report found that the Coast Guard is still underreporting service members who should be barred from buying guns. One proposal in the House would give the people who do the NICS background checks access to a much bigger national criminal database that's called N-DEx. That way they would not have to rely only on the data that's sent to their system. But Michael Hammond fears where this is leading.

HAMMOND: Ultimately, I think the goal is banning the private ownership of firearms. And every step toward that goal is just putting points on the board.

KASTE: Right now, though, while the Democratic majority in the House may favor a more powerful background check system, there's little interest in the Republican-led Senate, and the White House has already threatened to veto. Martin Kaste, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.