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Congress takes federal agencies to task for missing requirements on gun background checks

A bipartisan letter from senators is asking the agencies to close a loophole that helped the Sutherland Springs church shooter get his gun.

SUTHERLAND SPRINGS, TX - NOVEMBER 12:
A memorial stands in the Sutherland Springs First Baptist Church one week after 26 people were killed inside in Sutherland Springs, Texas on November 12, 2017.  (Photo by Carolyn Van Houten/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
SUTHERLAND SPRINGS, TX - NOVEMBER 12: A memorial stands in the Sutherland Springs First Baptist Church one week after 26 people were killed inside in Sutherland Springs, Texas on November 12, 2017. (Photo by Carolyn Van Houten/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Homeland Security and the Defense Department haven’t met reporting requirements Congress put in place last year to strengthen the gun background check system, according to an oversight letter 8 senators sent Attorney General William Barr on Thursday.

The bipartisan letter, authored by Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) and Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT), asks Barr for information on how agencies have implemented the requirements of the Fix NICS Act. That 2017 law set benchmarks and reporting requirements to make sure federal law enforcement agencies submit arrest and conviction records to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, or NICS, the nation’s gun background check system.

Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), Tim Scott (R-SC), Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), Marco Rubio (R-FL), and Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) also signed the letter.

“Since the enactment of Fix NICS, federal agency record submissions have increased by roughly 400%,” the senators wrote. “Unfortunately, it has come to our attention that several agencies, including the Department of Defense and the Department of Homeland Security, have yet to comply in full with the Fix NICS reporting requirements. These missing records undermine the effectiveness of the NICS system and put innocent lives at risk.”

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Congress passed Fix NICS after Air Force veteran Devin Kelley killed 26 people and wounded 20 more at a Baptist church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, in November 2017.

“This tragedy may have been prevented by a better working and more accurate [NICS],” the senators wrote. Kelley passed federal gun background checks despite convictions for domestic violence because — despite federal law and Defense Department policies — the Air Force repeatedly failed to submit his records to NICS.

Fix NICS placed new reporting requirements on all agencies and included specific reporting deadlines for the Defense Department. The Pentagon told ThinkProgress in December that it had not met those deadlines.

A spokesperson for the Office of the Secretary of Defense did not immediately return a request for comment Thursday.

A 2013 Pentagon report to the attorney general said that the agency was in compliance with all of its reporting requirements, despite thousands of missing records and a previous report to the contrary by the Defense Department’s inspector general, a ThinkProgress investigation found.

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Both Defense Department and Air Force policies require military law enforcement to submit arrest and conviction records to the FBI so a firearm doesn’t wind up in the hands of anyone in the ten categories of people who can’t own a gun under federal law. Licensed gun dealers are required to run every potential buyer through NICS, which uses records submitted to its databases by military, federal, tribal, state, and local law enforcement.

An inspector general report issued in December 2017 found that military law enforcement didn’t report final case outcomes to NICS 31 percent of the time, on average, in 2015 and 2016. The Air Force did better than the other branches, that report found, only failing to report 14 percent of final case outcomes. By contrast, the Army did not report 41 percent of final case outcomes, while the Navy and Marine Corps did not report 36 percent.

The Defense Department inspector general is working on a broader report on how military law enforcement agencies submit records to NICS and how to improve those systems.