Connecticut officials are setting aside millions of dollars to address backlogs in background checks that have soared into the thousands since the December school shooting in the state, which is one of several struggling with bottlenecks as people rush to buy guns ahead of new restrictions.
Since the Dec. 14 massacre of 20 children and six educators at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown reignited the debate over gun laws in the U.S., a host of factors have strained state background check systems, including a spike in gun purchases. Tougher gun laws have also been passed in Connecticut, Colorado and elsewhere that include additional background check requirements, and states must hire more workers to do the checks. Outdated technology used to take fingerprints has also contributed to the backlog.
"These states are saddled with a huge increase in volume, and with the increase in volume they just can't handle it," said Jake McGuigan, director of government relations and state affairs at the National Shooting Sports Foundation, an advocacy group based in Newtown.
About 9,300 people were waiting for background checks to be completed as of Friday in Connecticut, said Michael Varney of the state's emergency services department. The figure includes both pistol permit applicants and people who need checks for employment.
"Right after Sandy Hook, it spiked," said Varney, adding that the backlog was much smaller before the shooting.
The state also needs to complete another 62,000 gun registrations received from gun dealers and private parties that are transferring firearms, Reuben Bradford, the state's public safety commissioner, confirmed in a May 8 letter. He said those transfers all had cleared the necessary background checks, but the information has not been entered into the agency's system for firearms tracking. He attributed the backlog in data entry to "an unprecedented number of weapons purchases that were made in anticipation in a change in law."
Gun rights advocates fear that the delays could grow even longer once additional requirements for background checks take effect, such as Connecticut's requirement for a check on any sale or transfer of a long gun, which begins in January.
Connecticut Gov. Dannel P. Malloy's administration is working with lawmakers to come up with $3 million to $5 million in the new state budget to make technology improvements and fill as many as 39 jobs to help address the backlog, said Michael Lawlor, undersecretary for criminal justice and planning in Democratic administration.
The logjam for completing background checks will probably last for the rest of the year, Lawlor predicted, but the new staffing should alleviate that. He said those new workers, ranging from basic clerical to more skilled staff, will likely become permanent.
"In the future, more and more effort will be focused on very carefully regulating firearms," he said. "There are a lot of tools available to make sure guns are kept out of the hands of criminals and irresponsible people, but it takes a lot of time and a lot of effort."
In Maryland, state police increased processing hours from eight to 21 a day to address a backlog of more than 47,000 applications, Sgt. Marc Black said. New state gun laws take effect in October, and the state police licensing division added more personnel and spent money on overtime and additional computers to address the accumulation.
"We're just not going to sacrifice safety for speed," Black said. "We're going to give each application the time that is needed."
The office that handles federal background checks has not encountered any delays despite an increase in requests since the Newtown shooting, said Stephen Fischer, a spokesman for the FBI, but senators backing gun control are discussing ways to revive legislation that extend federal background check requirements to more buyers.
The National Rifle Association has opposed calls for universal background checks, arguing on its website that no system will be truly universal because criminals won't submit themselves to the system. NRA supported the creation of the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, which became operational in 1998 and verifies whether someone seeking to buy a gun from a gun dealer is not barred by federal or state law.
States that rely on state agencies to handle background checks, such as Connecticut, Colorado and Maryland, have experienced the brunt of the backlogs, McGuigan said, adding that the increase has been fueled by people seeking permits who are concerned about losing their right to bear arms and access to firearms.
Some delays in Connecticut were also caused by traditional ink fingerprints taken at local police departments that are flawed and can't be scanned and processed by the state police to send to the FBI for review, state officials told lawmakers last week. And even police departments that have computerized fingerprinting machines often put them in booking rooms where suspects are processed and the public is not allowed.
In Colorado, where a gunman killed 12 people in an Aurora theater last year, officials have responded to a backlog by implementing a computerized fingerprint checking system this month that allows fingerprints to be uploaded from remote locations, such as local police departments. The agency also recently hired 10 additional employees.
"So far, up to this point, the ability to reduce that backlog in quick fashion looks like it's going to take place," said Steve Johnson, an assistant director of the Colorado Bureau of Investigations.