Special Reports

Gun check glitch 'fixed'

Firearm background checks are supposed to prevent spouse abusers from buying rifles.

But because of computer compatibility problems, thousands of the checks in Pierce County might not have worked between December 2000 and July 2002.

It's unclear whether the glitch affected John Allen Muhammad, suspected in the D.C.-area sniper shootings and who was subject to a domestic violence restraining order won by his ex-wife in March 2000.

Gun sales are supposed to be denied to people with such protection orders.

Muhammad reportedly obtained a Bushmaster automatic rifle that had been delivered to Bull's Eye Shooter Supply in Tacoma in June. Federal agents have been unable to find a record that would confirm the transaction. Some reports say the rifle, tied to at least 11 fatal shootings, might have been stolen.

Leaders of Pierce County's Law Enforcement Support Agency say that, because of the computer problems among the county, state and federal governments, at least 14,000 restraining orders filed in Pierce County did not register in the federal database used for firearm background checks.

The data since have been re-entered, and officials say the database is current. But for 18 months, it wasn't.

"There was a window there that could have been a problem," said Lt. Sean Hartsock, commander of the Washington State Patrol's computer records section.

The glitch created a window of opportunity. People with restraining orders could buy rifles in the county - and the federal background check system likely would not have prevented the purchase.

"If the only thing there was a protection order, yes, it could get missed," said LESA records manager Tina Huber.

In Washington state, the federal government handles background checks for long-barreled weapons. For handguns, the state administers background checks. Those checks were not affected by the computer problem.

Gun buys are denied to people with protection orders. They are also denied to felons, fugitives and drug addicts, among other categories.

Huber and LESA head John Pirak said that without a name-by-name search, there is no way to tell whether the 14,000 protection orders that were re-entered refer to those who also fit into the other categories.

Nor could they say whether any of the people with active orders were able to purchase rifles during the 18-month span.

"We don't know," Pirak said.

LESA officials say Muhammad's restraining order did not appear in the federal database until it was "re-entered" May 16. Had he tried to buy a rifle legally before that date, the federal background check would not have revealed the order and would not have prevented him from buying the weapon.

Huber and Pirak said the agency first learned of the computer problem with the rifle checks in October 2000, at a time when the agency was suffering from a host of internal difficulties.

The national and state background check systems had been upgraded, but the protection orders in LESA's system were not showing up in the federal database.

"We knew there had been a change," Huber said. "We didn't understand that past records didn't automatically upgrade."

The federal background check is operated by the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, administered by the FBI. The system, conceived in 1993 as part of the Brady Bill, runs a would-be gun buyer's name and birth date against state and federal databases of people ineligible to buy a gun.

NICS, as the system is known, usually takes only a minute or two to approve or deny a sale.

The state and federal government upgraded the system in 1999. Protection orders continued to appear in the state's database. There was no reporting gap at that level. But the federal system included an extra field - a blank space used to enter information.

Because the LESA information did not include the extra field, the protection orders did not appear in the federal database, Huber said.

In December 2000, LESA compiled a list of protection orders and began to re-enter them. The process took 18 months, and the service was provided as part of the county's regular computer maintenance contract, Huber said.

Hartsock said all 39 Washington counties went through a similar process to make sure local criminal background information would appear in state and federal databases. He could not say whether other areas had the same backlog as Pierce County.

Bruce Hansen, manager of the King County sheriff's records unit, said the agency upgraded its records in 2000 and re-entered older protection orders - he could not say how many. The process took only a few months, he said.

News of the information gap upsets local caregivers who work to prevent domestic violence.

"That's very unfortunate," said Connie Brown, executive director of the Tacoma YWCA, which runs a domestic violence help line and a shelter for victims of spousal abuse. "The idea that somebody with a restraining order is getting through a loophole and is not being detected - that's really concerning."

Restraining orders provide one deterrent against abusers who try to buy guns, said Sgt. Jim Kelly, who supervises the Pierce County Sheriff's Department domestic violence unit.

"When they have access to weapons, they tend to use those weapons against the loved ones that they're abusing," he said.

Sean Robinson 253-597-8486