In the wake of the Sutherland Springs mass shooting, Senators John Cornyn (R-TX), Chris Murphy (D-CT), Tim Scott (R-SC), and Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), have introduced the Fix NICS Act, a bipartisan bill designed to strengthen the National Instant Criminal Background Check System.
The Fix NICS Act is designed to strengthen the federal database system used by federally licensed firearm dealers to perform background checks on gun buyers. Following the Sutherland Springs shooting that left 26 dead, it became clear that the NICS had sizable gaps and loopholes that allowed domestic abusers to obtain guns. Devin Patrick Kelley, the Sutherland Springs shooter, managed to buy weapons even though his Air Force court-martial for domestic assault should have rendered him ineligible. Shortly after the shooting, the Air Force confirmed that it had failed to report Kelley’s conviction to the NICS, meaning that he would have passed a background check.
In early November, The Trace reported that Kelley’s case wasn’t particularly unusual. “It isn’t just the military,” The Trace noted. “In most cases, local agencies don’t have a system in place for submitting the names of people with restraining orders or domestic violence convictions to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS)—so those names simply aren’t entered.”
The Fix NICS Act, which has already garnered support from a handful of senators across the aisle, is designed to address some of those loopholes by requiring states and federal agencies to “produce NICS implementation plans focused on uploading all information to the background check system showing that a person is prohibited from purchasing or possessing firearms under current law—including measures to verify the accuracy of records.” In addition, the bill incentives states who comply with their NICS plans with federal grants and penalizes federal agencies who fail to report. The bill also addresses domestic abuse directly, creating a Domestic Abuse and Violence Prevention Initiative that will again incentivize states to share “relevant information with NICS” that would prevent domestic abusers from purchasing guns.
The bill largely strengths existing laws but doesn’t address a number of loopholes, like the “girlfriend loophole.” Currently, the federal definition of domestic violence is limited to people who have lived together. The New York Times noted in 2015 that “gun prohibition” doesn’t apply to a couple who have never lived or had a child together even there’s been a conviction for assault. Current federal laws also don’t cover family members—say a sister or a daughter who has been abused. Though some states have patchwork laws covering these omissions, others do not.
Though Fix NICS would again incentivize states and federal agencies to better report domestic abusers, it doesn’t address the loopholes that allow a range of domestic abusers to obtain guns. Still, the bill’s sponsors argue that it’s a fix to what Senator Cornyn called “a nationwide, systemic problem” that will “better prevent criminals and domestic abusers from obtaining firearms.” In a statement, the bill’s Democratic co-sponsor, Senator Murphy, said: “It’s no secret that I believe much more needs to be done. But this bill will make sure that thousands of dangerous people are prevented from buying guns. It represents the strongest update to the background checks system in a decade, and provides the foundation for more compromise in the future.”