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New Gun Checks Under Fire

December 1, 1998

Waiting to buy shotguns at the Olde English Gun Shoppe didn’t anger Bob Niday and Dwayne Petty so much. It was the reason they were waiting.

It took 10 to 15 minutes for shop workers to complete a background check on the two Ohio men Monday. It was the first day for a new federal system that requires the check for all firearms purchases _ not just handguns.

``I think it’s stupid for the simple reason that robbers and murderers are not going to walk into a gun store and buy a gun,″ said Niday, 54.

``It’s silly to me,″ added Petty, 27. ``It’s a way for the government to find out what the honest people have in their homes.″

The men waiting in the western Ohio village of Ginghamsburg were among many discontented gun buyers across the nation Monday as technical delays slowed things down.

In Holden, Maine, gun dealer Ralph McLeod said he made 25 calls to the computerized background check system and got constant busy signals Monday morning. A young customer waiting to buy a $225 semiautomatic handgun was turned away as a result.

An estimated 12.4 million firearms are sold each year in the United States. All will be covered by background checks, as will an additional 2.5 million annual transactions when an owner retrieves a firearm from a pawn shop.

The new system is required under the Brady Act, which established federal background checks for handgun purchasers almost five years ago. Now people buying rifles and shotguns must submit to checks, too.

The Justice Department has given states $200 million in the past few years to help them computerize their records. The FBI says that once the system is working smoothly, approvals should take just three minutes.

Activists on both sides of the gun control debate have serious problems with the background checks.

The National Rifle Association filed suit in U.S. District Court in Washington on Friday contending a decision by the Justice Department to maintain a list of all people who apply to buy guns _ not just those found to have committed felonies or have other problems in their backgrounds _ violates federal law, including the Brady Act.

``This is about privacy and freedom from government snooping in our lives,″ said Wayne LaPierre, the NRA’s executive vice president.

He said the Brady Act requires the government to destroy all records compiled in checking the backgrounds of would-be gun purchasers except those of people found ineligible to own guns. It also prohibits establishing any national gun registry, he said.

And groups like Handgun Control say the new law is too lax because it decreases the time officials have to research a potential buyer. Under the old law, they had as long as five days if they needed it. Under the new law, they have three.

Federal law bans gun purchases by people convicted or under indictment on felony charges, fugitives, the mentally ill, those with dishonorable military discharges, those who have renounced U.S. citizenship, illegal aliens, illegal drug users and those convicted of domestic violence misdemeanors or under domestic violence restraining orders. State laws add other categories.

States had the option of running the system themselves, or having the federal government do it for free. Sixteen states chose to do it themselves; 10 others will run their own handgun checks and let the FBI handle other purchases.

Gun-control activists don’t like that 24 states are having the FBI do the background checks for them. Federal officials don’t have access to such background information as restraining orders and involuntary commitments to mental hospitals.

James Brady, the former White House spokesman for whom the Brady Law is named, said the lack of access to some background information is a flaw in the law. He and his wife, Sarah, who became gun control activists after he was wounded in the 1981 attempt on President Reagan’s life, also said a waiting period should be restored to prevent impulse shootings such as suicides.

Gun dealers say they and their customers were confused by the new system, and many had trouble getting through to the FBI’s approval hot line.

``Somewhere late morning or early afternoon, the complete system went down. The phones literally wouldn’t answer,″ said Barry Perry of Perry’s Gun Shop in Wendell, N.C. ``I don’t know if it was a computer overload or too many incoming calls.″

The FBI did not respond to requests for an interview.

At Gary’s Gun Shop in Sioux Falls, S.D., owner Gary Salmen was planning to put in a third phone line to handle the background-checking calls.

``We’re going to end up with one person at least part time spending all their time on the phone,″ he said.

Others in the gun business said they find the system oppressive, even if it eventually does work smoothly.

``The unfortunate part is it affects the people that probably perhaps it shouldn’t affect,″ said Bill Gleason, a salesman at Dave’s Guns in Aurora, Colo. Most people who buy rifles and shotguns are sportsmen and levelheaded people _ ``certainly not criminals.″

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