DHS Dropped the Ball on Background Checks for Gun Sales

AP Photo/Jae C. Hong

Acronym check: can you tell what this story is about from the following statement?

An OIG report states the DHS did not forward data to the NICS and FBI/DOJ.

If you could translate, that, congratulations. You may have a future career in civil service. If you could not, read on to learn how an agency dedicated to keeping you safe from gun violence and other threats, not to mention probably monitoring gun ownership, managed to botch the job.


A report released earlier this month by the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of the Inspector General (OIG) states that, between July 2019 and June 2021, DHS failed to submit criminal disposition data to the FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) that is required for background checks for gun sales. Those checks are a standard part of the sale of a gun from a licensed dealer and determine whether or not a person is legally allowed to purchase a firearm. If you’ve ever bought a gun, you know what we’re talking about here. In particular, the report highlighted the fact that:

…the components did not consistently update missing information on dispositions, that is, information on the nature and outcome of criminal proceedings. The components also did not always respond promptly or sufficiently to FBI NICS inquiries. Specifically, DHS components took more than 3 days to respond or were unresponsive to 126 (59 percent) of 214 NICS inquiries.

This data is supposed to be updated regularly to prevent firearm sales to those who cannot legally own a gun. There are 10 things that can stop a purchase of a firearm, including criminal behavior, mental illness, and illegal alien status. If the NICS does not receive the “disposition data” to approve a sale within three business days, a dealer can sell a firearm at his own discretion. This, of course, increases the chances of a prohibited person from buying a gun, and it increases the chances of a crime being committed with that firearm. The report attributes the problem to a lack of oversight and policy at DHS. The OIG made the following recommendations:


Recommendation 1: We recommend the Office of the Secretary establish a DHS oversight entity to ensure National Instant Criminal Background Check System compliance in DHS, which should include:

a. coordinating with the Attorney General to resolve open dispositions that no longer have available information and discontinue use of  administrative closure dispositions; and

b. developing a risk-based strategy for components to assess missing criminal history records and submit missing dispositions.

Recommendation 2: We recommend the DHS Office of the Secretary establish a mechanism to track and ensure timely responses to NICS inquiries and develop and implement a process to include immigration status at the time of inquiry for immigration-related inquiries.

Recommendation 3: We recommend the United States Coast Guard, Assistant Commandant for Human Resources, establish a process for the Personnel Service Center to notify the Coast Guard Investigative Service of the completion of dishonorable discharges and that CGIS personnel enter them into NICS data.

Recommendation 4: We recommend the DHS Office of the Secretary coordinate with DOJ to better understand NICS semiannual reporting requirements and issue DHS NICS semiannual certification guidance to components.

DHS concurred with all of the recommendations and plans to comply by Dec. 29, 2023. So, a year from now.

Of course, we all know that background checks, no matter how exhaustive, will not stop the illegal transfer of guns. But in this case, the background check system broke down because DHS didn’t do the job it was supposed to do. There is probably no way to quantify how many crimes, including mass shootings, might have been prevented had DHS been on the proverbial stick. But the efforts to limit the possession of firearms continue apace.


There are demands for stronger background checks, but the people in charge of updating the current system could not even do that. How comprehensive can a background check be if no one is minding the store? And if someone commits a crime with a gun they should never have been allowed to purchase, how much of the responsibility for the failure should fall on DHS? People are all too willing to sue everyone but the government when a gun-related crime occurs. Perhaps it is time for that to change.


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