By John Finnerty
CNHI Harrisburg Correspondent
Gun control groups are claiming victory after a House committee quietly pulled a bill that critics said would weaken Pennsylvania’s background check system for gun purchases, but the battle is likely not over.
“We do consider this a victory, but I don’t view it as dead and gone,” said Shira Goodman, executive director of CeaseFire PA, one of the groups that mobilized a campaign late last week to besiege lawmakers with calls opposing the background check bill.
The bill’s author, Rep. Tim Krieger, R-Westmoreland County, said he hopes to have it before the committee again soon. Krieger said he’s focused on eliminating duplication between background checks – one federal and one state – that all gun buyers must pass.
In Pennsylvania, state police do both checks. Krieger says the two are duplicative, even though the state check includes records for juvenile crimes and protection from abuse orders not required by the federal check.
State police checked more than 1 million gun buyers last year. Of those, 11,000 were denied. State police say they don't track how many were denied because of records searched because of the state law and how many were from records searched under federal law.
Krieger said state police ought to be able to load records required by Pennsylvania law into a national database so they’re available without doing two separate checks. State police began doing just that with mental health records in the wake of the December 2012 school shooting in Newtown, Conn.
“The intent is not to water down the background checks,” he said.
State police have expressed concern about the measure, arguing that the two checks are complementary, not duplicative. State police spokeswoman Maria Finn said officials are still talking to their federal counterparts about how many state records can be added into the national database.
Gun-control advocates say they’re concerned that anything not required by federal law and added voluntarily by the state could be quietly abandoned.
Krieger said the bill wasn’t put to a vote before the judiciary committee this week while lawmakers and the state police iron out what state records can be added to the national database.
Krieger said frustration over poor customer service inspired the bill. Dealers report waiting for long periods for background checks to clear, he said.
State police counter by citing a 2012 study that found 96 percent of dealers contacted were satisfied with the background check system. The survey found 70 percent of checks take less than 4 minutes. Of calls requiring an operator, 92 percent were completed in less than 10 minutes.
The national database is fully automated. For the state check, a state police employee does a manual check if the buyer is flagged for any reason.
Problems seem to arise when there’s a rush and operators get multiple requests – especially during large gun shows, said John Margel, who owns High Velocity Firearms, a gun shop in Selinsgrove.
“You can be on hold for 15 minutes, up to an hour,” Margel said. “I’d rather see (the state check) go.”
Margel said few people who are barred from purchasing a gun will bother trying to legally buy one from a gun shop.
However, there have been times when people with criminal records wandered into his store looking for a firearm, he said.
“I had one guy get denied and he said, ‘Oh, that must have been because I stole that car,’ ” he said.