Gun database leaves many empty handed

Legitimate gun sales down during peak season due to national system's glitches.

You can first hear the muted crack of gunfire and slugs slamming the backstop half a block away from Peter's Indoor Gun Range in the shadow of Detroit's skyline.

Inside, in nearly a dozen metal-covered shooting booths, off-duty police and hobbyists crank off hundreds of rounds at paper targets, filling the air with the smell of gunpowder. Spent brass casings litter the floor.

While the shooting range has been busy this week with Motowners sharpening their skills, in the adjacent showroom where firearms are purchased, it's quiet enough to watch college football.

"We are in limbo," says Tom Totapa from behind a glass counter where handguns lay on cloth displays. "We lost all of our gun sales on Monday. So far things haven't improved much."

The problem: A brand-new database, a national instant check system known as NICS, became operational Monday. Its purpose is to prevent felons, the mentally ill, and people convicted of domestic violence from buying any firearm, including rifles and shotguns. It replaces the five-day checking period mandated by the 1994 Brady law, which affected only handgun sales.

THE system's start-up has not been without problems. Gun buyers, retailers, and federal authorities are all chafing as wrinkles are worked out - at the height of the gun-selling season, no less. But even as NICS raises hopes that nonlegitimate purchases can be prevented, it also requires much adjustment by the gun-buying public and renews the debate over how far America should go to keep tabs on gun owners.

"It's a good system; wrong time of the year to be trying it out," says Chris Nicholson, manager of hunting and fishing manager at Galyan's Trading Co. in Gaithersburg, Md.

Mr. Nicholson hoped to sell 20 to 30 guns once all his seasonal inventory arrived. "I just had a father and son come in to buy a shotgun for hunting season. The [NICS] line has been busy, and the gun is sitting in the back waiting. My firearm business has ground to a halt."

The system is designed to be simple. A gun dealer calls the federal NICS Operations Center in West Virginia or, in some states, local officials who run a state check in tandem with the federal check. Once online, a dealer sends his identification number and password. Then the application is submitted.

The system places the sale in one of three categories: proceed, deny, or delay. For common names or a confused identity, an applicant can voluntarily provide a Social Security number for clarification. If the system fails to place the applicant after three days, the gun can then be purchased by the applicant.

Retailers and gun buyers already using some form of instant check say the system has been fair and simple.

"We've had instacheck here in Colorado for years and it's worked smoothly," says Charles Maeder, owner of the Shooting Shop South in Littleton, Colo. States like Massachusetts will still superimpose other requirements on gun buyers, including identification cards and a waiting period.

While retailers battle with the sluggish NICS system, gun proponents and opponents are taking shots at other features of the system that have more to do with ideology than logistics.

While the National Rifle Association originally came up with the idea of a national checking system in the 1980s, it filed suit against this system a day after it became a reality. The beef: The application's personal information, tied to the details of the firearm being purchased, amounts to a federal registry system.

NRA spokesman James Jay Baker says that thwarts the intent of Congress, which meant to create an instant, seamless system to weed out the ineligible from the 12 million eligible sales a year.

"FBI intention to create and maintain a database of gun purchases is a violation of federal law, an invasion of privacy, and constitutes illegal national registration of gun owners," the NRA suit claims.

The application information includes name, address, birth date, race, and a list of basic questions like is the purchaser a convicted felon? a US citizen?

The background information will be kept for just six months before being wiped out, says David Loesch, deputy assistant director of the FBI Criminal Justice Information Services Division.

"Records will be kept for 10 years on those who attempt to buy and are denied," Mr. Loesch says.

GUN foes are not happy with the system either. They are concerned it allows impulse purchases for murder or suicide intent.

"No instant check was ever designed to give instant access," says Sarah Brady of Handgun Control Inc. in Washington.

Moreover, gun activists suggest the new database is incomplete because, in some states, federal authorities might not have access to local records, including restraining orders or involuntary commitment to mental hospitals.

Nevertheless, many believe once the system emerges from its trial by fire in the coming months, it will provide the basic checking function of the original Brady law, only faster.

That screening function has been effective in blocking sales to the unfit and in tracing a gun's origins, says Robert Spitzer, author of "The Politics of Gun Control" and professor at the State University of New York, Cortland.

"A figure as high as 50 percent of guns used in crimes here in New York began as legal gun purchases and are traceable," Mr. Spitzer says. "So there is a link to crime that can be helped and certainly not hurt by background checks."

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