Hold Your Fire
December 2, 2004 By Tod Newcombe

In 1998, America's law enforcement community began using an automated background check system to approve or deny gun purchases instantly. Since then, millions of Americans have had their backgrounds checked by police who use the FBI's National Instant Criminal Background Check System to keep guns out of the hands of convicted felons, illegal aliens, fugitives from justice and several other categories of people.

In spite of the system, the wrong people still buy guns. Over a 30-month period, 10,000 felons and others prohibited from buying guns passed background checks and obtained firearms because most states have failed to adequately automate background check records, according to a report released in 2002 by the Americans for Gun Safety Foundation. The report, Broken Records: How America's Faulty Background Check System Allows Criminals to Get Guns, graded states on their record keeping and information sharing.
Just under half the states -- 22 to be exact -- received an F.

Not all states fared so poorly. One state in particular made a major technology investment to keep its record keeping accurate and improve its ability to prevent criminals and other illegal buyers from obtaining guns. The commonwealth of Massachusetts deployed what it says is the most comprehensive, instant record-checking system for gun owners and purchasers.

The new system, dubbed MIRCS (Massachusetts Instant Record Check System), combines biometrics with the state's criminal history database. Would-be purchasers must pass a background check both when applying for a license to carry a firearm and when purchasing the gun. Massachusetts issues 78,000 firearms licenses every year.

"This is the most comprehensive system of its kind in the country," said Barry LaCroix, executive director of the Massachusetts Criminal History Systems Board (CHSB). "The Web-based system has expedited and standardized the process for running background checks."

MIRCS replaces an operation that relied on paper and mainframe computers, and took weeks to process an application, said Jim Slater, CIO for the Executive Office of Public Safety, which oversees the CHSB.

"Massachusetts has some of the most restrictive gun laws in the nation," he said. "But the existing system built up a tremendous backlog because it was still paper-based in the local police departments where residents have to apply for gun licenses."
It was also inefficient, costing the state and police time and money.

Web-Based Verification
In 2000, the state decided to automate the front end of the application process, allowing local police to file forms from computers and eliminating the paper trail that made the old system slow and cumbersome. It was originally designed as a mainframe-based solution, something the CHSB wanted to change when it became clear the process could work less expensively on the Web. A small firm called xFact, from North Andover, Mass., designed and built the front-end application.

Massachusetts spent approximately $4.6 million on MIRCS, using money from the state's IT bond program, which borrows money from financial markets for state government systems that can demonstrate a return on investment in terms of money and value. The funds paid for design, application development and hardware, said Curtis Wood, deputy director of the CHSB. In addition, the project paid for installation of a workstation, printer, fingerprint reader and secure router in every local police department in the state, he said.

Some equipment purchased by the CHSB, including the router and workstation, is part of a broader law enforcement program to give police in Massachusetts integrated, encrypted access to FBI and other databases over the state's integrated criminal justice system infrastructure.

"We were able to leverage the budget for the project to cover a number of related applications," explained Wood.

When applicants arrive at the local police department, they pay a fee for the license, and have their picture taken and fingerprints scanned with the electronic reader. The police fill out a Web-based form and submit it electronically for a background check. The entire process takes 15 to 20 minutes.

The state produces the license -- which looks like a driver's license and includes a photo and scanned fingerprint image -- and mails it to the police a day or two later. So far, 120 police departments (out of 351 municipalities) have installed the system.

Not only is MIRCS fast, it's also thorough, said LaCroix.

"The system is updated daily with information from trial courts on the latest warrants, restraining orders and so on. If someone has appeared in court in the past 24 hours on any kind of charge and tries to apply for a gun license, they will be turned down," he explained.

The second part of the background check occurs when the gun license holder goes to a dealer to purchase a gun. The dealer must verify the license holder's identity by matching the fingerprint on the license with the individual. If a warrant or restraining order has been issued against the person between the time he or she applied for a license and decided to purchase the weapon, MIRCS will flag the person and deny the sale. Once the sale is completed, data about who bought the gun, what type and when it was purchased is entered into the system.

This second background check not only safeguards against illegal sales, but it also protects gun dealers from the potential liability of selling a firearm to the wrong person. Currently three of the state's largest gun dealers use the system. Eventually all 375 gun dealers in the state will use MIRCS.

Initially the state was going to provide the hardware to dealers, but some questioned whether tax dollars should be spent helping profit-making businesses with their technology needs. As a result, the gun dealers are installing MIRCS on their own computers.

Big Time Labor Savings
With MIRCS up and running, state and local police are beginning to benefit from the processing efficiencies of Web technology. Each computerized application now takes the CHSB two to four minutes to process, compared with two to four hours when most of the work involved paper. When the CHSB puts a dollar amount on what it will save in terms of labor costs between 2004 and 2008, the figure is more than $6 million.

Local police departments are expected to save hundreds of thousands of dollars in labor costs, and postal expenses will be slashed by a quarter of a million dollars. Altogether, MIRCS will save $7 million on its $4.6 million investment, said Wood.

In addition, MIRCS provides a level of safety to both citizens and police in Massachusetts that was nearly impossible to provide with the old system. No longer will the wrong people slip through the cracks, evade the system and purchase a handgun, explained LaCroix.

"MIRCS also provides the police with a comprehensive database of all firearms sales," he added. "Now the police can check on whether an individual owns a handgun before they enter their home or business."