FBI computer problem halts gun sales nationwide

Friday, May 12th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) -- All gun sales have been halted nationwide since Thursday afternoon because an internal software problem in the FBI criminal history database has temporarily halted instant background checks of gun buyers, the FBI said Friday.

The FBI's Interstate Identification Index, a database that has the criminal histories of 36 million people, stopped working late
Thursday afternoon. FBI and contractor employees expected to have it working again by Saturday evening or Sunday morning, FBI
spokesman Paul Bresson said.

"It was an internal database problem, not the result of a hacking or external attack," Bresson said.

Without background check approvals, gun dealers said that since Thursday afternoon they have been forced to tell their customers to
wait for their guns until the system comes back up and the checks can be completed.

The computer failure made it impossible to check the criminal histories for past felony convictions that bar people from buying guns. Also brought down by the software problem was the FBI's automated fingerprint system, known as IAFIS for Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification System.

The National Instant Criminal Background Check System, or NICS, established under the Brady law to check whether prospective buyers
are legally eligible to purchase guns depends on the Interstate Identification Index in its search for felony convictions.

Even though gunstore owners in only about half the states file their background check inquiries directly with the FBI, the failure
affected checks in all 50 states. In states where gun dealers place background check requests with a state police agency, that state agency checks the FBI's criminal histories by computer in addition to its own records before approving or disapproving the sale.

"We can't release any guns to our customers until it's fixed," said Art Harris, owner of The Gentleman Hunter in Bethesda, Md.

"We haven't lost any deals yet, but Saturday is our biggest day."

"I suppose some gun buyers are angry over the delay, but our customers have been very understanding," Harris said.

When the system is working, 72 percent of gun purchases are approved within 30 seconds, the Justice Department says. And 95 percent of buyers get an approval or a disapproval within two hours of their application for purchase.

In its first 13 months of operation, the NICS system completed more than 10 million background checks. Only 5 percent required
more than two hours to complete the background check.

"We had four prospective sales Friday, but we can't deliver the guns because we can't get approvals," said Tommy Thacker, manager
of Loudoun Guns in Leesburg, Va. "We just tell them we'll call them when the system is up."

In Virginia, gun dealers like Thacker are linked by computer with the Virginia state police, but the state police are linked to
the FBI computer to check federal criminal history records.

"So the state can't give approvals," Thacker said.

"No one has gotten angry so far," Thacker said. "But it could get sticky," because once the sale applications are accepted by the computer for checking, the backlog could lengthen the time it takes to complete the checks.

The Brady law gives law enforcement up to three business days to complete a gun check, but the three-day period does not begin until
the computer accepts the application.

The computer failure threatened to create a backlog and a weekend of extra work at the FBI Criminal Information Center in Morgantown, W. Va., Bresson said. Federal officials said extra workers were being called in to clear any backlog over the weekend.

Other functions of the FBI's computerized National Crime Information Center 2000, that serves state and local police as well as federal agents around the nation, continued in service. The unaffected computerized services included the FBI's lists of wanted people, fugitives, stolen guns and stolen property.