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Gun sales checked faster

By Associated Press,
© St. Petersburg Times
published May 30, 2003

WASHINGTON - Nine out of 10 gun purchases are now subject to instant FBI criminal background checks, a marked improvement over the response rate from two years ago, the Justice Department reported Thursday.

Only about 9 percent of transactions now face delays, mainly due to technology improvements that have reduced the rate of false matches in the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, or NICS. The immediate response rate rose from 71 percent average in early 2001 to 91 percent in 2002.

The improvement means that most gun dealers now can get information immediately over the phone or via computer about whether a prospective firearms purchaser is a felon or is prohibited from buying a weapon.

In the past, many dealers had to wait for an FBI agent to review records and make a final determination. Dealers are permitted to sell the gun if no answer is received in three days, sometimes requiring federal agents to attempt to retrieve the firearm if a denial later comes in.

In a statement, Attorney General John Ashcroft said the improvements "are helping make our country safer by barring access to firearms by felons, illegal aliens and others who cannot legally own guns."

Some critics say the laws are still inadequate to keep guns away from terrorists and criminals, and they cite a provision that allows unchecked sales at gun shows. Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., recently released a Congressional Research Service study showing that U.S. lists of known terrorists are not included in the NICS databases.

"Speed should not be a barometer for success with this background check," said Peter Hamm, spokesman for the Brady Center to Prevent Handgun Violence. "These statistics show the system is getting faster, not smarter."

Lautenberg said the system still allows too many guns into the hands of criminals and potential terrorists. He also said the Justice Department should back away from plans to destroy firearms records transactions after 24 hours, instead of three months.

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