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President Obama’s executive actions to combat gun violence call for an expanded role for the federal government, with hundreds of new federal law enforcement staff members and oversight by several agencies.
The FBI is expected to hire more than 230 new analysts and other employees for its National Instant Criminal Background Check System, a database created 17 years ago to vet and stop gun sales to buyers who are prohibited from obtaining firearms.
The expansion, carrying out a change designed to make it harder for gun buyers to avoid background checks, should speed the process of background checks, the White House said. Under current law, a gun sale can go forward if a check is not completed within three days.
The extra staffing also will allow the system, based in Clarksburg, W.Va., to ramp up to round-the-clock processing of background checks from its current 17-hour schedule. Local authorities will be notified sooner when someone who is barred from buying a gun tries to purchase one, according to a White House fact sheet on the changes.
“We’re going to hire more folks to process applications faster, and we’re going to bring an outdated background check system into the 21st century,” Obama said Tuesday as he announced his plan.
The system received more than 22.2 million background check requests last year — an average of more than 63,000 applications per day, Carol Cratty, an FBI spokeswoman, said. That number is expected to grow as the administration requires more background checks on licensed gun dealers and others who want to own more-dangerous weapons.
The White House said the new hiring “will begin immediately and increase the existing workforce by 50 percent,” according to a fact sheet on the executive actions. “This will reduce the strain on the NICS system and improve its ability to identify dangerous people who are prohibited from buying a gun before the transfer of a firearm is completed,” it said.
Cratty said in an email that the new analysts will be hired over the next two years, although it was unclear whether their salaries would come out of the budget that Congress passed in December or the spending plan the administration proposes for the next fiscal year. In that case, funding would run into opposition from congressional Republicans who oppose the president’s gun actions.
Cratty said the workload of the background-check system has increased steadily since the database was created in 1998 “with December 2015 being the highest month on record for background checks.
In addition to hiring more staff, the agency is modernizing the system’s technology to handle expedited processing, Cratty said, so the FBI can work with “federal, state, local and tribal partners to gather more complete criminal and mental health records.”
The White House also wants to hire 200 new investigators and agents at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, which will play a central role in the tighter gun policies by clarifying what it means to be “engaged in the business” of selling guns.
Until now, some collectors and hobbyists have been able to avoid that designation. As a result, they have not needed a federal license to sell guns or have not been required to conduct background checks on their customers. The ATF will require more of these sellers to conduct background checks, even if they’re doing business only at gun shows or online.
The White House fact sheet said that Obama plans to request funding for the new ATF staff in his budget for fiscal 2017. The agency also plans to set aside $4 million to “enhance” the National Integrated Ballistics Information Network, a database containing digital images of recovered pieces of ballistic evidence that the government uses to track violent crime.
The Social Security Administration will take the lead on another piece of the president’s order, by sharing information with the FBI on Americans who are prohibited from owning a gun because of mental health or other issues, the White House said.
This new reporting is expected to cover the records of about 75,000 people a year with a documented mental health issue who receive disability benefits or have been found by a state or federal court to be legally incompetent, the White House said.
White House press secretary Josh Earnest said Tuesday that law enforcement agencies will enforce the president’s actions with or without congressional funding for more staff.
“No, it is not contingent on the ability of the federal government to hire additional ATF agents,” Earnest said. “This guidance has been issued, and it certainly does clarify that anybody who is engaged in the business of selling firearms has to get a license and to make sure that their customers are getting background checks before their customers are able to purchase a weapon. ATF, using the resources they have now, will enforce the law accordingly.”
The chairman of a House Appropriations panel with jurisdiction over the Justice Department has threatened to withhold funding for the ATF expansion.
“The House Appropriations Committee will not provide resources to your department for the development of unlawful limitations on the unambiguous Second Amendment rights of Americans,” Rep. John Abney Culberson, (R-Tex.) wrote Monday in a letter to Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch.
Culberson said that he expects the Justice Department to “allocate its resources to the enforcement of existing law.”
Obama also wants the departments of Justice, Defense and Homeland Security to conduct and sponsor research into gun safety technology — also known as smart guns — to reduce the number of accidental shootings and improve oversight of lost and stolen firearms.