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Problems With Ohio's Gun Background Check System Have Been Known For Years

Mourners gather for a vigil at the scene of a mass shooting, Sunday, Aug. 4, 2019, in Dayton, Ohio.
John Minchillo
Associated Press
Mourners gather for a vigil at the scene of a mass shooting, Sunday, Aug. 4, 2019, in Dayton, Ohio.

The cities of Columbus and Dayton, along with the national gun control group Everytown and Ohio resident Meghan Volk, are suing the Ohio Attorney General's Office over the state’s gun background check system. The lawsuit targets a problem in Ohio that’s been known for years.

Under federal law, background checks are required whenever someone buys a gun from a licensed dealer. So people with felony records or warrants for their arrest, for example, cannot buy a gun.

But the checks rely on courts to report this information to state criminal databases and the federal government’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System.

“For far too long, the state of Ohio has maintained a criminal background system that is dangerously broken,” said Columbus City Attorney Zach Klein.

Klein said cities and advocates for gun control have waited years for promised improvements. Now they want a judge to issue an order requiring it from Ohio’s Bureau of Criminal Investigation.

“We’re seeking action from BCI to address these clear problems so we can improve public safety for all Ohioans," Klein said.

Klein said BCI is ultimately responsible for compiling records from the state’s 88 counties that are required to report felony cases every week.

Misdemeanor domestic violence convictions are also supposed to go into the system. Klein says there’s plenty of evidence that, too often, that isn’t happening.

“But then it comes down to the will to fix it,” Klein said.

The problem was identified back in 2013, when a working group on the state’s background check system found that there were about 46,000 felony convictions in Ohio in 2011. About 27% of those were never reported to the background check system.

The report concluded there needs to be a mechanism for courts to report cases in a timely, efficient manner.

Gov. John Kasich issued a report in 2018 on the failings of the state background check system. His solution, in part, was to punish county courts that failed to report cases to the state that would prohibit a person from buying a gun.

“If they do not comply, then we’re going to figure out what we can do to be more punitive,” Kasich said.

The Ohio Auditor wrote a letter last year describing a systematic failure for reporting cases to the state, noting unreported cases in 48 of the state’s 88 counties.

Branden Meyer from the clerk of court's state association takes issue with the blame placed on courts, and argued that clerks do report to the state. But they rely on reporting from others, too.

“So if law enforcement, for whatever reason, forgets to fingerprint the person or loses the fingerprint card, they can’t send that to us,” Meyer said. “And we can’t send it. We’re responsible, but, you know, we can’t be responsible if it’s not given to us.”

Meyer said an ideal system would be an automated sharing of court records between all local courthouse computer systems and the attorney general’s office.

During a panel with Cincinnati-based gun violence prevention organization Whitney/Strong in October, the governor’s senior adviser for criminal justice policy, Andy Wilson, said the state is also working on expanding the background reporting system.

“The information in a background check is only as good as the information they’re getting from the locals,” Wilson said.

The state is putting $25 million toward a new database that will gather information on protection orders and arrest warrants to include in gun background checks.

But the plaintiffs in the lawsuit filed Monday in Franklin County say the shifting of blame and delays have gone on too long.

During a press conference announcing their lawsuit, Everytown Law’s managing director Eric Tirschwell said under state law it’s clearly BCI’s responsibility.

“To procure — that’s the word in the statute — procure specified information concerning all persons convicted of felonies and other crimes — again now I’m quoting from the statute — ‘wherever procurable,’” said Tirschwell.

The Ohio Attorney General's Office, which oversees BCI, said in a statement that the Bureau of Criminal Investigation is working with courts and law enforcement to improve the reporting system and described the lawsuit as having “high drama, low substance and no solutions.”

Republican state Sen. Matt Dolan said the gun reform bills he introduced last year, known as Strong Ohio, would ensure that there’s no delay getting information to the background check system.

“A criminal conviction or a restraining order that’s the result of violence gets into the system as soon as possible, so at the end of the next business day,” Dolan said.

Current state law requires that courts file weekly reports. Dolan’s bill has yet to be moved out of senate committee.