They say any publicity is good publicity, but you probably wouldn’t say that about the press that the FBI has been getting lately. Its National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) has been under a national spotlight ever since the horrific shooting in Sutherland Springs, Texas, when the mentally unstable shooter, Devin Patrick Kelley, was able to purchase a firearm despite items on his record that should have prohibited it.
It doesn’t seem coincidental, then, that the FBI is having a record year when it comes to weapons seizures. The number of seizures indicates an attempt to take back control on the FBI’s part, but it also demonstrates just how flawed the background check system is.
The FBI Is Seizing More Guns than Ever
Before we get into the FBI’s firearms seizures, it’s important to understand exactly how the background check system works through the NICS. When someone wants to purchase a firearm through a licensed firearms dealer, the dealer must first enter that person’s information into the NICS, which vets it to see if the person has anything on their record that makes it unlawful to purchase a firearm.
This background check often happens instantly, but it can take longer. The maximum amount of time allowed for this per federal law is three business days. After that, even if the NICS didn’t approve the transaction yet, the person in question can complete their purchase.
If the NICS later flags the buyer after the transaction has already gone through, then the FBI issues a request to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) to send agents who can retrieve the firearms.
In 2016, the FBI requested seizures for 4,170 firearm purchases, which is a 10-year high. For comparison’s sake, the number of seizure requests in 2015 was 2,892. Keep in mind that since these numbers refer to purchases, the number of firearms is almost certainly higher, as many people are able purchase multiple firearms in a single transaction regardless of how bad their credit is.
The Many Dangers of Seizing Firearms
There are several obvious dangers of selling someone a firearm, and then trying to get it back later. The most significant is that a person who shouldn’t have a gun, does. As we saw with the unlicensed use of a low-budget Ruger .556 AR-15 in the Sutherland Springs shooting, that can lead to terrible tragedies. Of course, any determined criminal could get a gun through illegal means, but it will at least be more difficult for them when they can’t just buy one at the store.
It can be an unpleasant and risky job for the ATF agents performing the seizures. Trying to take someone’s guns is inherently dangerous, especially when a person technically purchased those guns legally and feels the government is infringing on their rights.
Finally, there’s the very real possibility that the agents have no luck seizing the guns. Sometimes agents can’t find the buyer, or they do, but the buyer resold the guns or claims they don’t have the guns anymore. The FBI doesn’t require the ATF to provide an update on how a seizure went, and with the ATF being short-staffed, agents often give up the chase if they don’t think the buyer is actually a threat.
The FBI is currently exploring various blockchain solutions, and private companies like Blocksafe are providing their own solutions, but those are years away from being implemented and widely adopted.
Seizures Won’t Fix a Broken System
Gun control advocates support the NICS, and many want it extended to firearm accessories. After the mass shooting at a country music concert in Las Vegas, the latest idea was using the NICS to track bump stock sales. Some even say that online ammunition stores should carry a background check, and most reputable ones do.
That makes little sense, in part because it only places more restrictions on law-abiding gun owners, and because the NICS already isn’t working. Adding even more items for the NICS to monitor is like loading up a truck that broke down years ago.
Requiring background checks for firearm purchases is a good idea, but it needs to be implemented correctly, otherwise, it’s worthless. The NICS currently isn’t doing its job properly, because it’s letting thousands of people who should be barred from buying weapons do so anyway.
The increased seizure rate is the FBI desperately trying to increase the public’s trust in a broken system. It’s a transparent effort, though, as anyone can see that when you need to seize firearms people purchased, the system checking those buyers has some serious flaws. Until the NICS can process transactions within a reasonable timeframe without missing anything, it won’t do much in terms of the public’s safety.