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Old 12-25-2004, 12:53 PM
titantoo titantoo is offline
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Default NYTimes:State Sees Instant Results in Electronic Gun Checks

December 25, 2004

State Sees Instant Results in Electronic Gun Checks

By FOX BUTTERFIELD

WOBURN, Mass., Dec. 24 - When Massachusetts this month became the first state to install an electronic instant-check system complete with a fingerprint scanner for gun licenses and gun purchases, the impact was quickly apparent.

On Wednesday, for example, moments after a court placed a woman's husband under a restraining order, a notice about the order popped up on a new computer terminal at the police station here. Given that information, the Woburn police went to the man's house and confiscated his guns, all 13 of them.

The computer is part of the record-check system and allows the police and gun stores to learn right away if a person can legally own or buy a firearm. The system provides instant updates on arrest warrants, restraining orders and convictions, and it links fingerprint scanners and computers at gun stores and police departments with a central database.

Under Massachusetts law, anyone wanting to buy a gun must first obtain a license from the local police department. Now, when a person applies for the license or goes to buy a gun, his fingerprints can be checked electronically to verify his identity.

"This is a quantum leap in improving public safety and also making it quicker for people to buy a firearm," said Edward A. Flynn, the Massachusetts secretary of public safety. The new computer system was developed by the state's Criminal History Systems Board, part of Mr. Flynn's office.

Philip Mahoney, the police chief in Woburn, a city of 38,000 people just north of Boston, said the new system was particularly valuable because "we get notified in real time about any new restraining orders, warrants and arrests."

Under the old system, based on paper records maintained at individual police stations and gun shops, Mr. Mahoney said, "we might not be notified at all if someone was put under a restraining order."

In the case this week, Mr. Mahoney said: "We were able to go to the individual's house immediately after the restraining order was issued, which is the most dangerous time for a batterer. It's a time when the victim is probably moving out, and the risk of violence is highest."

The new Massachusetts electronic system is in addition to the federal requirement that a gun buyer undergo an instant background check. That check is completed by telephone before the gun is sold, with a clerk in the gun store calling the F.B.I. or a state police agency.

Many of the same records are searched in both checks, but the national instant background check is not as up to date as the new Massachusetts system, particularly for restraining orders, and does not require fingerprint verification.

Mr. Flynn said his office was working with the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives to try to consolidate the two checks in Massachusetts.

So far there has been no outcry against the new system from gun owners or the state's gun stores.

"Basically, it's all the same information we had to submit before, so this is not more intrusive," said Carl Ingrao, the owner of Four Seasons Firearms in Woburn. His business is the largest gun store in Massachusetts and was used in a pilot project testing the system beginning last June.

"I haven't had any negative comments from customers whatsoever, and I've sold over 2,000 firearms since the system went into effect," Mr. Ingrao said.

"The computer is actually quicker, more efficient and less expensive for the dealer," he said, because under the old paper system each form cost 50 cents, not including the postage for mailing a copy to the Criminal History Systems Board. Mr. Ingrao says he believes the new system will save him about $2,000 a year.

The electronic system is also faster because once a purchaser's identity is confirmed by the fingerprint scan, the computer automatically fills in the buyer's address, date of birth, height, weight and hair and eye color. That data comes from the gun license application.

"A few months ago, they had to take the system down for a day for a software upgrade, and we had to go back to filling out all the old paperwork," Mr. Ingrao said. "My clerks were saying, 'Hey, the computer is better.' "

Gun owners and the gun industry have often complained that background checks are onerous because they take too much time and prevent people from just walking in and buying a gun when they want to. Mr. Flynn said the new system was an effort to answer that criticism by speeding the process.

By law, police departments in Massachusetts have had 45 days to issue a firearms license. But with the instant check system, the police should be able to issue the license in 24 to 48 hours, Mr. Flynn said, and then a customer with a license will be able to buy a gun in a few minutes.

So far, computer terminals linked to the system have been installed in 159 of the state's 351 police departments and at the four largest gun dealers. The goal is to have them installed in all departments and gun stores by next June, Mr. Flynn said.

A customer at Four Seasons Firearms who collects handguns said he had no objection to the electronic system "because I have nothing to hide."

The customer, who declined to be identified, echoing the concerns of many gun owners about their privacy, added: "The law-abiding gun owners are always put on the defensive when some nut shoots someone. The media makes us out to be the bad guys, but we are just following the law."
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