CLARKSBURG, W.Va. — Nearly two decades after lawmakers began requiring background checks for gun buyers, significant gaps in the FBI’s database of criminal and mental health records allow thousands of people to buy firearms every year who should be barred from doing so.
The database is incomplete because many states have not provided federal authorities with comprehensive records of people involuntarily committed or otherwise ruled mentally ill.
Records are also spotty for several other categories of prohibited buyers, including those who have tested positive for illegal drugs or have a history of domestic violence.
While some states, including New York, have submitted more than 100,000 names of mentally ill people to the FBI database, 19 — including New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Vermont, Maryland, and Maine — have submitted fewer than 100 records.
Rhode Island has submitted none. That suggests that millions of names are missing from the database, gun control advocates and law enforcement officials say.
The gaps exist because the system is voluntary; the Supreme Court ruled in 1997 that the federal government cannot force state officials to participate in the background check system. As a result, when a gun dealer asks the FBI to check a buyer’s history, the bureau sometimes allows the sale to proceed, even though the purchaser should have been prohibited from acquiring a weapon, because its database is missing the relevant records.
While the database flaws do not appear to have been a factor in the Newtown, Conn., school massacre, they have been linked to other attacks, including the Virginia Tech mass shooting in 2007.
Since then, Virginia has sharply increased its submissions to the FBI. But other states have not, according to Mayors Against Illegal Guns.
The gaps in the database have exacerbated the effect of a loophole that results in violent felons, fugitives, and the mentally ill being able to buy firearms when the FBI cannot determine the person’s history during a three-day waiting period.