The Justice Department is under orders from Congress to set up by next month a system gun dealers can use to identify felons who try to buy weapons.
But a Justice task force reported recently that an effective system is neither economicallly nor technically feasible now.
The report cited a lack of automated state criminal history records and a lack of trained law enforcement personnel as two of the reasons that an effective system could not be fielded quickly.
Officials estimate that U.S. gund dealers sell 7.5 million guns a year, about 30,000 most days and 50,000 during hunting season.
Congress directed Justice to set up the system by Dec. 18. Attorney General Richard Thornburgh created the task force to advise him on how to set up the system, as required by the 1988 Anti-Drug Abuse Act.
Justice research and surveys found that in a perfect system, a gun dealer would do a 10-finger scan of each purchaser on an automated fingerprint identification system (AFIS). The AFIS would digitize the print and transmit the information over telephone lines to a state criminal record repository.
The state office then would run a match of the fingerprint against its databases.
The FBI would need to upgrade its systems and telecommunications to handle the digitized fingerprints. Many states do not have automated fingerprint records, and the systems in the 20 states that do vary greatly, the report said.
“This would be a massive and expensive operation,” the report said.
At $30,000 to $100,000 each, AFIS machines are prohibitively expensive, the report said.
It would require a start-up investment of at least $9 billion for all the nation’s 270,000 gun dealers to install AFIS equipment.
Only about 35 percent of the dealers operate retail shops, the task force reported. Most sellers are hobbyists and collectors, the report said.
Although the task force made no single recommendation, it divided the options other than the 10-finger live scan into two categories.
One approach would have gun dealers call buyer’s names into state offices, where terminal operators would access state records and, through the National Crime Information Center, FBI records.
The request for information on the buyers would take about three minutes to fill and could be made during the sale.
The report estimated this approach would cost the states and federal government $40 million to begin and another $60 million in annual operating expenses.
If the operator found the buyers’ name on a list of felons but the buyer maintained that he was eligible to proceed with the purchase, the buyer would provide fingerprints to a local law enforcement office to get secondary verification.
If no evidence of a felony conviction turned up, the state would issue a one-year purchase certificate.
To provide the intermediary checking services, the states must upgrade their communications systems and in some cases build automated systems and hire extra employees to operate the terminals, the report said.
The FBI would need 395 more employees to handle about 725,000 fingerprint cards and 4,000 daily requests for manual records, mainly for people arrested before mid-1974. The agency would have to significantly enhance its automated Interstate Identification Index, because the task force estimated that checks through the system would increase by 70 percent from the current 10.7 million annual inquiries.
The other approach offered by the task force involves approving prospective buyers in advance and issuing firearm owners identification (FOID) cards. Applicants would go to local law enforcement offices to be fingerprinted and have their photographs taken.
In four to six weeks, after the states had checked their criminal records and the FBI had completed the fingerprint search, the three-year card would be issued or denied. Secondary verification of other states’ records could be triggered by information from the state or FBI repositories.
Each state would maintain a FOID card database.
“Though essential to verification and prevention of forgery and fraud,” the task force said, “the creation of such a list may be controversial.”
The task force estimated the joint state-federal cost would be roughly $150 million annually and another $150 million or so to start up the operation.
Though the second option would remove much of the burden from the gun dealers as compared with point-of-sales checks, the report warned that people might oppose fingerprinting all prospective purchases.
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