Columbus, Dayton allege ‘dangerous failure’ in state gun background check system

Wikimedia Commons photo courtesy St. Louis Circuit Attorney's Office.

Two of Ohio’s largest cities have accused the state government of a “continuing and dangerous failure” to report criminal convictions to the federal background check system, leaving the door open for felons to procure firearms.

Attorneys for the cities of Columbus and Dayton filed the lawsuit in Franklin County court Monday morning. They’re asking a judge to declare that the Bureau of Criminal Investigations, part of the Attorney General’s office, has “failed and continue[s] to fail to carry out their legal obligations” and mandate compliance with state law.

The reporting lapses, the cities alleged, could allow thousands of people legally prohibited from possessing firearms to pass background checks required to buy guns.

Allegations that a maladministered background check allows Ohio felons to procure guns, despite federal law, may be shocking but they’re hardly new.

State Auditor Keith Faber wrote a letter in a 2019 letter to state officials warning that Ohio’s current protocol for inputting information into the National Instant Criminal Background Check is “broken and needs immediate attention.

Former Gov. John Kasich issued an executive report in 2018 describing a patchwork of critical information falling through cracks before making it to NICS. Several entities were unaware of their NICS reporting responsibilities.

Media outlets have shined a spotlight on the problem since at least 2015, according to the lawsuit.

“Large, dangerous gaps have existed in Ohio’s background check repository for years,” the lawsuit states. “Despite the fact that BCI has had knowledge of such gaps, and repeatedly promised to fix them, it has continuously failed to do so.”

The lawsuit focuses on BCI’s duty to procure required information, not the courts and law enforcement agencies who have proved spotty in submitting it.

Bethany McCorkle, a spokeswoman for Attorney General Dave Yost, called the lawsuit “high drama, low substance and no solutions” in a statement.

“We are investing millions of dollars to improve this system, and have taken steps to root out any errors,” she said. “BCI is working with the court system and law enforcement agencies to ensure information is more quickly and accurately fed into the background check system as required. We cannot force them to provide the information. BCI is working toward having a process that is faster and the information is accurately verified. The problematic link in this chain is not BCI, as the complaint notes.”

The filing comes as more Ohioans than ever are purchasing guns, per FBI data on monthly NICS checks.

Gun violence has also been on the rise in Ohio, likely driven by economic fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic.

In a news release paired with the lawsuit, Columbus Mayor Andrew Ginther said 70% of homicides in Columbus are committed with firearms that are usually illegally obtained.

“We should all be deeply concerned that background checks may be failing to keep firearms out of the hands of violent offenders, putting our residents in a dangerous position,” he said. “We cannot and will not tolerate it.”

Gov. Mike DeWine has, for months, urged lawmakers to take up his “Strong Ohio” bill, which among other provisions would require law enforcement agencies and courts to enter information like the entry of arrest warrants or protection orders into NICS.

However, the legislation has developed little traction in a legislature whose members recently sought to protect gun stores from closure in the event of another COVID-19 quarantine and to expand the legal right to shoot to kill in self-defense.

“The records missing from our background check system create unacceptable risks to public safety,” said Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley, who gained national profile calling for gun control after a mass shooting in Dayton left nine dead and 17 wounded.

“There are clear steps that officials can take to address these issues, and the public has waited too long already. It’s past time to fix these dangerous problems.”

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