The FBI will soon allow its background check examiners to access a previously underutilized database of more than 400 million records to determine whether or not gun purchases can go through across the country.

The database is called the National Data Exchange, or N-DEx, and it is managed by the FBI’s Criminal Justice Information Services (CJIS) Division. It houses information including incident/arrest reports (sometimes including arrest narratives); booking and incarceration reports; pre-trial, probation, and parole reports; warrants; tickets and citations; and field contacts and interviews.

Currently, the National Instant Criminal Background Check system (NICS) checks three main database to check whether a gun purchase from a federally licensed dealer can go through. Those databases can be checked within two minutes. If something pops up that requires a second look, examiners have three business days to gather the necessary information from other sources, including state and local law enforcement, to further scrutinize the purchase. The dealer is allowed to sell the gun at his or her will after those three days once the clock runs out for FBI examiners.

That’s what happened months before Dylann Roof murdered nine parishioners at Mother Emanuel in June 2015.

The April 2015 check into Roof, then 21, revealed a felony drug arrest, but that wasn’t enough to prevent him from buying a gun. Had the examiner gained timely access Roof’s arrest information, they would have seen that he admitted to being in possession of a controlled substance and denied Roof’s purchase of the .45-caliber Glock handgun he later used at the church.

“We are all sick this happened,” said then-FBI director James Comey at the time. “We wish we could turn back time. From this vantage point, everything seems obvious.”

This failure in diligence was later dubbed the “Charleston loophole” by critics, many of whom proposed lengthening the background check period from three to five days. A bill to do just that lingered in committee in the S.C. Senate this year, but has not received widespread support.

In 2016, more than 300,000 gun purchases went through because examiners ran out of time, according to ThinkProgress.

A spring 2018 staff paper from the CJIS Advisory Policy Board, obtained by The Trace, a website that tracks gun violence, acknowledges the possible failures inherent in the method used to conduct background checks on gun buyers.

“The process of contacting the agency and receiving the response can be a lengthy process,” the report reads. “This creates a potential threat to both public and officer safety.”

The board conducted a pilot program using the N-DEx database on more than a million background checks for gun purchases. According to meeting minutes obtained by The Trace, purchasers with felony convictions, open arrest warrants, illegal drug use, and misdemeanor domestic violence crimes were barred from buying guns using the extra step.

FBI examiners will only be able to check the thorough N-DEx database when initial checks turn up information that requires additional research.

“At the conclusion of the pilot, it was determined the data provided to the NICS Section from the N-DEx System was valuable in providing information prior to the third business day, and would be beneficial to add as a permanent expansion to the NICS background check process as a secondary resource.”

Full implementation of the new system at the state level could take up to 24 months, according to the report, but NICS examiners should be able to query the N-DEx database within “approximately nine months.”

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