But NICS is only as good as the data that’s put into it. A decade ago, a mentally ill man named Seung-Hui Cho went on a killing spree on the campus of Virginia Tech, murdering 32 people and injuring 17 others. In the aftermath, Congress passed a bill to strengthen NICS with more criminal records and mental health information. While there is still room for improvement, Department of Justice data suggests the number of federal and state records entered into NICS has increased significantly since the law was signed in January 2008.
Now, a group of senators, led by John Cornyn, a Republican from Texas and one of the strongest gun rights advocates in Congress, has put forward a similar measure that would improve the reporting of domestic violence convictions. Mr. Cornyn’s measure would impose a financial penalty on the heads of federal agencies that fail to report the convictions. It would also reward states that improve reporting, and would provide more federal funding toward those efforts.
In the weeks since the Sutherland Springs murders, it’s become apparent that the Pentagon’s failure in the Kelley case was one of many; time and again, it has failed to forward criminal incident data to the F.B.I., which maintains the three databases that NICS pulls from. The Air Force conducted a review in recent weeks, saying Tuesday that the military had failed to report several dozen serious crimes to the bureau’s databases and that it was in the process of fixing the problem. Outside the Pentagon, a separate report by the public interest group The National Consortium for Justice Information and Statistics from 2013 found millions of records missing — of criminal convictions, prior mental illness and other red flags — that are supposed to keep guns out of potentially dangerous hands.
The new bill, called the Fix NICS Act, is the rare piece of gun legislation that has no meaningful opposition and that has bipartisan support. Across the aisle, the lead co-sponsor is Chris Murphy of Connecticut, with three other senior Democrats backing it as well. The National Rifle Association has also applauded the measure.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions has also weighed in, announcing last week a full evaluation of the NICS process. Suggesting that one error that leads to tragedy is one too many, he said the NICS database “is critical for us to be able to keep guns out of the hands of those that are prohibited from owning them.”
The Justice Department’s review will focus on military reporting, as well as the “format, structure and wording” of NICS forms and other potential obstacles to compliance. A bigger question that it might want to consider is whether NICS reporting should be more standardized. Right now, every state submits what it wants with no true national protocols. Even the definition of “domestic violence” varies from state to state.
A quick vote, at the very least by the end of the year, would be welcome — unencumbered by controversial amendments that could delay or even torpedo it, thus risking many more lives. The House Judiciary Committee is expected to mark up the bill this week.
For its part, the Pentagon should look to itself and sanction those responsible for the Kelley failure. Falling asleep on guard duty and shirking administrative due diligence are equally deadly.