Massachusetts Legal Developments Blog

Massachusetts Slow to Record Gun Background Checks into Federal Databases

A recent report by the Boston Globe shows that three years after the state overhauled its gun laws, the Commonwealth is still struggling to send the results of their background checks to federal investigators. According to the Boston Globe, the delays in reporting stretch for weeks, or even months. This could allow individuals who are not legally allowed to procure firearms to purchase one, and potentially attack another citizen or citizens.

In fact, there has been a renewed attention on mandatory reporting laws. If the laws were followed as directed, it is possible that the church shooting in Sutherland Springs, Texas, as well as the church shooting in Charleston, S.C. would not have occurred. Both men should have been on a federal registry preventing them from purchasing firearms.

Furthermore, this shows how a state with even the most stringent gun laws can still have security loopholes. Until 2013, Massachusetts did not even report mental health conditions to the federal database. Similarly, according to the Boston Globe, Massachusetts did not report misdemeanor domestic violence convictions or substance abuse convictions. After the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut, the Commonwealth changed their policies and began more aggressively reporting convictions to the federal database.

The Commonwealth has since backtracked and added more than 20,000 convictions in the last several years, most dating back to the mid-1990s. However, as new cases have come in, Massachusetts has struggled to incorporate them into the federal database in a timely fashion.

“I’m very concerned. We need a system where nobody can slip through the cracks, and we’re unfortunately in a situation now where someone can potentially fall through the cracks,” state Representative David Linksky said while pushing for a new system in 2014.

Even gun rights advocates are outraged by Massachusetts’ inability to keep the database updated with the convictions of domestic abusers and violent felons. “I thought this was all taken care of, I didn’t realize this was still going on. This is something that needs to get fixed. Certainly, we don’t want people who have severe mental health [or other disqualifying] issues to have firearms.”

Many Massachusetts residents are questioning the delays. According to the DCJIS, officials must manually sort through all criminal convictions to determine which ones need to be reported to the federal database. Then, once those offenders are identified, prosecutors need to fill out a form that complies with the federal requirements, according to officials, this tedious process can take weeks or even months. Gun control advocates worry that this is the exact amount of time for a recent convict to seek out a gun with the intention of harming another person.

Sadly, the slow and incomplete reporting of mentally ill individuals or convicted felons is a nationwide problem. While funding increases and regulatory changes have helped boost the number of records in the federal database, much work remains to fill the gaps.

Massachusetts, for its part, plans to create an automated system for processing the records which it hopes will ultimately serve as a model for real-time input into the federal gun database.