Bipartisan group in Senate aims to strengthen background check system for guns

The bill would punish agencies that fail to upload crime records to the system.

ByABC News
November 16, 2017, 5:36 PM

— -- In the wake of the recent mass shooting in Sutherland Springs, Texas, a bipartisan group of senators introduced a bill Thursday meant to strengthen the existing background check system for firearms.

The Fix NICS Act, which refers to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, would set up incentives and penalties for state and federal agencies to boost their compliance with existing requirements that they report criminal history records to the system, helping ensure it stays up to date.

“Just one record that’s not properly reported can lead to tragedy, as the country saw last week in Sutherland Springs, Texas," Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said in a statement on Thursday. "This bill aims to help fix what’s become a nationwide, systemic problem so we can better prevent criminals and domestic abusers from obtaining firearms.”

Devin P. Kelley, the man who has been identified by federal and state law enforcement officials as the shooter who killed 26 people, including an unborn child, in Texas on Nov. 5, was court-martialed while in the Air Force on charges of assault on his wife and child in 2012. But his convictions were not reported to the background check service used for gun buyers, and he was able to purchase the weapon that was used in the Nov. 5 shooting.

Outspoken gun control advocate Sen. Chris Murphy and Sen. Richard Blumenthal, both Democrats from Connecticut, helped Cornyn craft the bill in a rare instance of bipartisanship on the issue. It is also being backed by Republican Senators Tim Scott of South Carolina, Orrin Hatch of Utah and Dean Heller of Nevada, as well as Democrats Dianne Feinstein of California and Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire.

“Mass murderers in Sutherland Springs, Charleston, and Blacksburg were legally prohibited from accessing firearms, but gaps in NICS allowed each of them to walk out of a gun store with the weapons used to commit their crimes," Blumenthal said.

The announcement of the bill comes one day after another bipartisan group of senators — made up of Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., and Shaheen — sent a letter to Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis to ask how the Department of Defense classifies and reports cases of domestic violence, specifically referring to Kelley and the Texas church shooting.

"The recent tragedy in Texas has raised serious questions about cooperation between the military justice system and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) in preventing statutorily barred persons from purchasing firearms," the letter read. "As you know, the military failed to send pertinent information relating to Devin P. Kelley’s domestic violence related convictions to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) at the FBI."

The Fix NICS Act would punish federal agencies that fail to upload relevant records to the background check system by prohibiting bonuses for political appointees, and would incentivize state agencies to comply by offering federal grants.

It would also allot funding for a Domestic Abuse and Violence Prevention Initiative "to ensure that states have adequate resources and incentives to share all relevant information with NICS showing that a felon or domestic abuser is excluded from purchasing firearms under current law," according to a statement announcing the bill.

Murphy, who advocates more sweeping gun control legislation than the Fix NICS bill, said that it is a step in the right direction.

“It’s no secret that I believe much more needs to be done. But this bill will make sure that thousands of dangerous people are prevented from buying guns," Murphy said, adding that the bill "provides the foundation for more compromise in the future.”

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