Metro

Mass. slow to send records to federal gun background check database, prompting concerns

The delays in Massachusetts highlight how even a liberal state with some of the strictest gun laws in the country has its shortcomings.
John Locher/Associated Press/File 2016
The delays in Massachusetts highlight how even a liberal state with some of the strictest gun laws in the country has its shortcomings.

More than three years after Massachusetts overhauled state law to improve background check reporting, the state remains slow at sending records to the nation’s database that prevents guns from getting into the hands of people with mental health, substance abuse, and domestic violence issues, state officials acknowledge.

Those delays — regularly stretching weeks, if not months, because of the volume of work involved — could allow for individuals who should be barred from buying a gun to purchase one in another state, officials say.

“There may be cases where they’re not reported as quickly as they should be,” said Curtis Wood, who heads up the state agency responsible for sending the records to the federal background check database.

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As America again reassesses the limitations of gun policies in the wake of another mass shooting — this time at a Parkland, Fla., high school last week — the delays in Massachusetts highlight how even a liberal state with some of the strictest gun laws in the country has its shortcomings.

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Delays or all-out failures to report such records in other states have had serious consequences, as they allowed mass shooters in places like Charleston, S.C., and Sutherland Springs, Texas, to purchase weapons unflagged.

Just a few years ago, Massachusetts was one of a handful of states that sent virtually no mental health records to the national database, which is maintained by the Federal Bureau of Investigation because of a decades-old law that prohibited such sharing.

Similarly, the state had not submitted any misdemeanor domestic violence records or substance abuse records, according to Wood, a senior official in the state’s Executive Office of Public Safety and Security, who oversees the Department of Criminal Justice Information Services.

But amid outrage after the Newtown, Conn., school massacre, state legislators in 2014 overhauled arcane legislation that had prevented those records from being submitted.

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Since then, the state has added to the federal database more than 31,000 records dating back to the mid-1990s about court orders for people to get mental health treatment, nearly 2,300 misdemeanor domestic violence records, and about 1,000 substance abuse records, Wood said.

Still, as new records are created by the state’s court system, the state has struggled to send them to the federal database in a timely manner. Each year, Wood said the agency is responsible for sending approximately 23,500 records of this kind to the federal database, all of which face some processing delay at the state level.

“I’m very concerned. We need a system where nobody can slip through the cracks, and we’re unfortunately in a situation now where someone can potentially fall through the cracks,” said state Representative David Linsky, a Natick Democrat who pushed for the new system in 2014.

Gun rights advocates also expressed concern. “I thought this was all taken care of. I didn’t realize this was still going on,” said Jim Wallace, executive director of the Gun Owners’ Action League. “This is something that needs to get fixed. Certainly we don’t want people who have severe mental health [or other disqualifying] issues to have firearms.”

Why the delays?

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Officials at DCJIS must manually sort through batches of records that come about once a month from the court system to identify which meet the requirements for submission to the federal database, Wood said. This involves cleaning up and rearranging that data so it can be submitted accurately and in the proper format to the federal database. It’s a process that involves multiple steps and can typically take two weeks to a month depending on the agency’s workload.

“Right now, it’s a very labor intensive process,” Wood said. “We’ve made progress, but we’re certainly not where we need to be. It’s been a little slower than we all hoped for.”

The problem, of course, is what could happen in the interim as Massachusetts is processing the files.

Wood said he worries the delays in getting records to the nationwide database could potentially compromise the ability of other states to flag the sale of a gun to a person whose information should be in the federal system.

The same problem does not happen for in-state gun purchases or firearms license applications here in Massachusetts because there are other background check procedures used to monitor those transactions.

Ari Freilich, a staff attorney at the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, said the federal background check system is effective in preventing people from buying a gun, but only if their information is listed in the federal database. Problems arise when information is missing, as is the case with the Massachusetts records.

“The records are incomplete in many cases, and states are often slow to report,” as are federal agencies that are also supposed to send records, he said.

It’s unclear how Massachusetts’ delays compare with those in other states, but specialists say many states struggle with this problem. It is difficult to know exactly how many records are slow to arrive or missing altogether from the national database, but estimates have put the figure in the millions.

Funding increases and regulatory changes over the years have helped boost the number of records in the database, Freilich added. However, significant gaps remain.

Now, Massachusetts officials say they are working to create an automated system for processing the records, with the hope that they will ultimately be able to add them in near-real time to the federal database.

“The end goal is to build a streamlined, automated interface so when that record comes in to DCJIS, it fires right off to the FBI so there’s little to no manual intervention,” Wood said.

The new system, funded by a half-a-million-dollar grant from the federal government, will feature a computerized feed allowing records to flow in real, or near-real, time from the court to the department and then to the federal database.

He said he hopes the new system will be in place in about a year.

Other states are working with similar grants to improve their own reporting.

The federal database has faced heightened scrutiny in recent months after revelations that records were never submitted in cases that led to the Charleston and Sutherland Springs, Texas, cases, allowing individuals to buy guns prior to the attacks after clearing background checks that they would have failed had records been properly submitted.

“The background check system is only as strong as the records that are in it,” said William Rosen, deputy legal director of Everytown for Gun Safety, a nonprofit that advocates for gun control. “States need to do everything they can to submit their records.”

Clarification: This story was updated to reflect how many records Massachusetts has added to the federal database after receiving updated numbers provided by state officials.

Matt Rocheleau can be reached at matthew.rocheleau@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @mrochele.