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Justice Department offers $20 million in grants for improving gun background check data

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Pistol gun SIG Pro from Wikimedia Commons
Pistol gun SIG Pro from Wikimedia Commons

The US Justice Department today officially kicked off a $20 million grant program designed to improve the FBI's national background check system for purchasing guns. The idea is to increase the amount of data states share with the federal government on "dangerous individuals," who are prohibited from buying guns under federal law. The amount for the program was first announced in January as part of President Obama's proposal to improve gun control, but now the details of what the money will be used for have been made clear.

Increasing data sharing on "dangerous individuals"

The Justice Department is asking governments, private companies and nonprofits to develop easier ways for state agencies to submit electronic criminal records, mental health records such as "involuntary commitments to mental health facilities," and electronic fingerprints to the FBI's National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) database. The database has been online since 1998, but a recent report from the Mayors Against Illegal Guns, an advocacy group made up of sitting mayors from around the US, found it to be sorely lacking in mental health and fingerprint data. The report concluded this was due to a variety of problems unique to each state in how they handle their own records and how quickly they've been able to switch over from paper to digital systems.

The hope is that three new grants will spur dramatic improvements in the comprehensiveness of the NICS database by a deadline of early 2015. But it's hardly the first time the Justice Department has thrown money at the problem: A report last year from the Government Accountability Office found that the Department had awarded $40 million in grant money to state governments since 2009 to improve the database, but that "most states have made limited progress" in providing mental health records, in part due to technological issues and privacy concerns. It remains to be seen how the program announced today will avoid some of these pitfalls. The Verge has reached out to the Justice Department for more information and will update when we hear back.