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Police Fret Over Implementation of Brady Bill

December 29, 1993

Undated (AP) _ Police chiefs and county sheriffs across the country are dreading the Feb. 28 implementation of the Brady bill, the new federal law mandating a five-day wait and background check on every person who wants to buy a handgun.

Smaller departments worry about cascading paperwork; others fear that gaps in computer networks may miss some felons or deny guns to legal purchasers.

Still others have questions: How do you check for mental problems when records are sealed? How do you determine habitual drug use?

″This could be a logistical nightmare,″ said Bobby Jones, police chief in Great Falls, Mont.

The frustration is typified by state police in Arkansas, where a computer system needed to check prospective gun buyers’ backgrounds won’t be ready when the Brady bill takes effect.

Until it is, officers will have to pore through mountains of individual files.

″It is going to be very difficult for us to meet the five-day waiting period. In fact, I don’t see how we’re going to do it,″ said Col. Tommy Goodwin, director of state police in Little Rock.

But federal officials say local departments need to take the long view. Yes, they agree, enforcement will vary among jurisdictions. Some people who should not buy guns will initially slip through the cracks. But down the road, the $200 million a year the bill provides to update state and national criminal databases will make for a better system.

″What will be considered a reasonable search will become much more complete in five years than it will on Feb. 28,″ said Jack Killorin, a spokesman with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. ″Year by year, the quality and real time of the records will get better and better.″

President Clinton signed the long-debated handgun control bill into law last month. It requires local police agencies to perform ″reasonable″ background checks of state, local and national records within five business days to determine if people seeking to buy handguns are eligible.

Those prohibited from buying handguns include convicted felons, fugitives, minors, drug and alcohol addicts, illegal aliens and those judged mentally incompetent.

The law will have little or no impact in 26 states and most of the nation’s major cities, where state or local laws already mandate background checks and waiting periods.

But in the remaining jurisdictions, where the Brady bill means new, time- consuming routine, law officers are fretting over the attendant costs and confusion. Some are also complaining about how to comply with the law when much of the information is not yet readily available.

″You could spend five days just checking out one records check,″ said Tony Lombard of the Denver Police Department.

In several states, criminal records are not yet computerized. Ohio has only a third of its criminal histories in a statewide computer system. Officials say it will take three more years to increase that to 90 percent.

Nevada officials have a different concern: While their statewide system records all arrests, it does not always include final adjudication. As a result, someone accused of a crime but acquitted on all charges could be denied the legal right to buy a gun.

And even where new computers are on order or existing systems are being upgraded to fulfill Brady demands, officials know many information systems are incompatible, sometimes within the same state.

Tulsa County Sheriff Stanley Glanz says Oklahoma has two relatively new computer systems, but it will be ″very difficult and very expensive″ to link them.

″All these agencies have developed their own computer systems, and they don’t have a common data dictionary,″ he said. ″Someone may call a guy a ‘white male’ and I may call him a ’Caucasian male.‴

Even with all these worries, criminal records are generally available in one form or another. That is not the case with mental capacity, juvenile convictions, drug or alcohol use and immigration status. Such factors are close to impossible to come by.

Bob Matzke, police chief in Bismarck, N.D., expressed frustration over the Brady requirement to check a potential gun buyer’s mental condition. In North Dakota, that information is sealed.

″That could be extremely difficult to get access to because of medical confidentiality rules,″ Matzke said.

The ATF’s Killorin readily acknowledges there will be initial problems trying to meet all the requirements of the law. Many of the worries and perceived stumbling blocks will be addressed next month as the Justice Department sends out specific information on administering the law.

But he says the Brady bill is a step toward the goal of developing a nationwide computer link that can instantly access all criminal records. Similar systems in Florida, Virginia, California and Maryland have prevented more than 47,000 handgun purchases by felons and fugitives.

Killorin said federal officials understand there may be no immediate way to check a gun buyer’s mental status or drug usuage, ″but people are getting lost in the hypotheticals.″

″The bulk of the issue is criminal convictions,″ he said. ″We probably won’t get everybody, but we’ll stop a lot of convicted offenders from getting guns and that’s a good thing.″

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