PA Gun Background Checks Almost Tripled Since Sandy Hook

According to records published by the FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS), 135,603 background checks for firearms purchases were conducted in Pennsylvania last month. That’s almost triple the number of previous years: 47,456 background checks were conducted in Pennsylvania in January 2012 and 49,123 in January 2011.

The startling increase — which began the month before, in December, when 133,241 checks were run — represents a post-Sandy Hook sales boom nationwide that one gun seller in Tennessee called a “banic,” meaning “people were panicked President Barack Obama would ban guns.” Pennsylvania’s numbers, though, actually defy the national trend, which showed an average of a 10 percent drop between December and January — attributed to gun sellers in many states literally running out of guns because of the abrupt surge. Gun sellers in Pennsylvania, apparently, were better stocked than the American average.

Pennsylvania’s background check system has recently improved. We’re one of 13 full “point of contact” states, which means that the potential firearms purchasers’ information is run through the Pennsylvania Instant Check System (PICS), which runs through the national NICS. Up until last month—despite Gov. Corbett emphasizing the role of mental health in mass shootings in the wake of Sandy Hook tragedy—Pennsylvania did not send mental health records to NICS for inclusion in the federal background system. That meant that a person denied a firearm in Pennsylvania based on his or her mental health—you have to have been adjudicated or committed against your will for this to happen—could still purchase a firearm in another state.

The NICS system, established by the Brady Bill in 1993, has been up and running since 1998. States have been taking their sweet time complying with the request to send their state mental health records to the feds, making many background checks a hollow formality.

More incentives, by way of the NICS Improvement Amendment Acts, were added to the system after Seung-Hui Cho killed 32 and wounded 17 people on a mass shooting murder at Virginia Tech University in 2007. Cho, According to the Bureau of Justice, “was able to purchase firearms from an FFL because information about his prohibiting mental health history was not available to the NICS and the system was therefore unable to deny the transfer of the firearms used in the shootings.”

Still, Pennsylvania—and most other states—failed to comply. It’s unclear what the hold-up has been. Last December, five days after the Sandy Hook shooting,  Pennsylvania State Police Commissioner Col. Frank Noonan sent a letter to NICS Section Chief Paul Wysopal stating essentially that Pennsylvania had been repeatedly requesting clarifying information from ATF from June 2011 to November 2012. Having received the information in November 2011, the state police promised a swift transmittal of the records.

Thus, on January 15, the Pennsylvania state police finally transmitted 643,167 mental health records that were already in PICS for inclusion in the NICS database. The state police also promised routine updates on a daily basis.

With that one mass submission, Pennsylvania went from being classified by Mayors Against Illegal Guns as one of the “worst performing states” in terms of populating the federal background check database with state records to classification as one of the “best performing states.”  Pennsylvania joins New York, Virginia, Washington and California as the other “best performing” states in this regard.

New Jersey has sent a total of 17 records (missing: 73,541), and Maryland has furnished only 64 (missing: 48, 241). A full interactive map of non-compliant states can be seen here.

Rep. Todd Stephens (R-Montgomery) has stated that even though the state police provided the information dump to NICS in January, he plans to introduce legislation that would mandate state cooperation to avoid any further problems and ensure routine updates.

Meanwhile, it is unclear what percentage of gun sales in Pennsylvania even require a background check, as the requirement only applies to gun purchases made through licensed firearm dealers. Depending on the circumstances, many guns sold by unlicensed dealers through private sale or (in most states) gun shows do not require a background check.

Experts routinely cite the statistic that 40 percent of gun purchases are made without a background check. However, that stat traces back to a National Institute of Justice study conducted via telephone survey almost 20 years ago, in 1994. Politifact points out that “of the 2,568 households surveyed, only 251 people answered the question about the origin of their gun.”

So to recap: Gun sales are way up. Most states do not forward their mental health records to the federal NICS system, so the system itself is full of cracks, and we basically have no clue how many gun purchases even require the background check anyway.

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