An internal software problem in the FBI criminal history database used for instant background checks of gun buyers halted gun sales and put a damper on gun shows for almost three days, beginning late in the afternoon of May 11.
The problem in the FBIs Interstate Identification Index, a database containing criminal histories of 36 million people, prevented completion of background checks that the Brady law requires licensed dealers to conduct for all firearms buyers. It was finally corrected and the system put back on line on Sunday morning, May 14. However, by then dealers had lost sales and customers were inconvenienced all day Friday and Saturday, usually the busiest day for sales.
In addition, the falloff in business at gun shows, such as the big Ohio Gun Collectors Association (OGCA) show in Cleveland that weekend, sent attendees home empty-handed and caused dealers to strike their tables early and head for home. On the last day of the OGCA show, attendance had dropped off significantly and many exhibit tables were empty, just as the National Instant Check System (NICS) went back on line.
Sales between private individuals, which currently do not require a background check, could still be transacted. However, if the proposed law requiring a background check on all firearms sales at gun shows had been in place during the shutdown, the confusion and the economic loss to gun show exhibitors and promoters would have been enormous.
An FBI spokeswoman told Reuters news service that the Clarksburg center was staffed at Christmas-like levels when the system went back on line as operators tried to deal with the huge backlog of requested checks.
Without the background check approvals, licensed gun dealers could prepare the paperwork but had to postpone completion of all transactions until the system was repaired and clearances could be processed. The three-day waiting period for the NICS checks does not begin until the FBI accepts the purchase application.
With the so-called Million Mom March scheduled in Washington and many other cities on May 14, both federal officials and gun dealers expressed concern that some people would jump to the conclusion the two events were linked or the background check failure was deliberate, Associated Press reported.
But federal officials rejected either idea.
An FBI official said the computer problem and resulting two-day halt in nationwide gun sales had nothing to do with a major demonstration by guncontrol activists that brought hundreds of thousands of protesters to Washington on May 14.
The computer failure at the Clarksburg, WV, facility also made it impossible for point-of-purchase states to conduct background checks. In states where gun dealers place background check requests with a state police agency, that agency checks the FBIs criminal histories by computer in addition to its own records before approving or disapproving the sale.
When the system is working, 72% of gun purchases are approved within 30 seconds, the Justice Department claims. And 95% of buyers get an approval or a disapproval within two hours of their purchase application.