An attempt to tighten the federal background check system is working, according to a U.S. Justice Department report.
The Fix NICS Act, authored by U.S. Sens. John Cornyn, R-Texas, and Chris Murphy, D-Conn., penalizes federal agencies that fail to send criminal history records to the FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System. U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo, and former U.S. Rep. John Culberson, R-Houston, carried the measure in the House.
Cornyn first announced plans for the bill in the aftermath of the Nov. 5, 2017, shooting at the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs that left 26 people dead. The measure passed in March 2018.
The shooting highlighted gaps in the background check system. The Air Force didn’t report Sutherland Springs shooter Devin Kelley’s previous court-martial and conviction for domestic violence that would have kept him from purchasing an AR-556 rifle.
"For years, agencies and states haven’t complied with the law, failing to upload these critical records without consequence," Cornyn said in a statement after introducing the measure. "Just one record that’s not properly reported can lead to tragedy" like in Sutherland Springs.
This month, the U.S. attorney general released the first government report on the National Instant Criminal Background Check System since the passage of Fix NICS.
The department reported that between April 2018 and August 2019, there was a 6.2% increase in the number of records in the three national databases searched with every NICS check — an increase of more than 6 million additional records.
"These early indicators are encouraging, but the real work is just beginning — the implementation plans have been in place for just a few months," the report noted. "As those plans are executed over the next several years, the Department expects to see a real and lasting positive impact on NICS records and operations."
The agency reported that 45 federal agencies, all 50 states, Indian tribal governments and the District of Columbia successfully submitted implementation plans.
The number of so-called firearm retrieval referrals — when a prohibited person is able to purchase a gun because the background check could not be concluded within three business days — decreased by an average of 102 referrals per month compared with the same period one year ago, according to the report.
"After the shooting in Sutherland Springs, I authored the Fix NICS Act to help close the gaps in the criminal background check system," Cornyn said in a statement after the report’s release. "I commend the Department of Justice for working to fully implement this law, and I look forward to seeing the continued progress Fix NICS can make to ensure missing records don’t put more innocent lives at risk."
In October, Cornyn announced additional legislation that he says would reduce mass shootings.
Cornyn filed the bill with five other Republicans — Sens. Martha McSally of Arizona, Joni Ernst of Iowa, Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia, Thom Tillis of North Carolina and Tim Scott of South Carolina. The effort would create a number of new initiatives, including law enforcement task forces to investigate and prosecute those selling firearms without a license and those who include false statements on background checks.
The measure also expands resources for mental health treatment and expands school safety training and intervention. It would encourage internet service providers to collaborate with law enforcement, bolster mental health funding and expedite the death penalty after a mass shooting.
But Democrats, including those running for Cornyn’s seat, say Fix NICS and other legislative efforts by Cornyn don’t go far enough to curb gun violence.
"We’ve had three more mass shootings in Texas since the passage of this bill," Texas Democratic Party spokesman Abhi Rahman said. "Texans deserve real solutions to solve our gun violence epidemic — not half measures from Cornyn that are meant purely to score political points."
U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Austin, said the background check measure "actually fixes little" and only affirms preexisting requirements about what goes into the national background check system. The measure also doesn’t prevent criminals from purchasing guns in certain private sales without a background check.
"Both this law and this new report are designed merely to create the illusion that the Trump administration and its congressional enablers are responding to public concern about gun violence, when in fact they are actually blocking approval of the Violence Against Women Act and the Bipartisan Background Checks Act," Doggett said in a statement.