Are Pennsylvanians Paying for a ‘Constitutional Right’?

The term “background check” has been getting a lot of play in the media these days, with all the political maneuvering and posturing by Congress and various advocacy groups following the mass shootings these past few years.

Nearly all gun owners are aware federal law requires federally licensed firearms dealers to initiate a background check on the purchaser prior to sale of a firearm. In Pennsylvania, even private sales of handguns requires the filling out of a Pennsylvania specific form and a background check through the Sherriff’s Office or a FFL.

But what is not as well-known is the fact that the law provides states with the option of serving as a state “point of contact” and conducting their own background checks using state, as well as federal, records and databases, or having the checks performed by the FBI using only the federal National Instant Criminal Background Check System (“NICS”) database.

Pennsylvania is but one of a handful of states that conducts its own background check for gun purchases rather than avail itself of the NICS system. It believes its checks to be more thorough because state files are not always included in the federal database.

The Pennsylvania State Police (“PSP”) serves as a state point of contact for NICS and conducts the background checks itself through the Pennsylvania Instant Check System (“PICS”).

Upon receiving a completed application from a potential purchaser, the dealer must phone the PSP, which cross-references the information with its various databases, including federal ones. For that service, the PSP collects a fee of $2 for the instant check and a $3 per taxable firearm sale surcharge to cover telephone costs.

So in addition to the cost of the gun and any other fees imposed by the dealer, a purchaser typically pays $5 to the state for its approval.

To some, that amount is too much to pay for a constitutionally guaranteed right. To others, it is not enough.

In reality, the fees collect by the Commonwealth do not come close to paying for the cost incurred in providing the service. According to state records, since its inception 20 years ago, PICS has cost at least $90 million, with fees collected covering about half. That means the shortage has to come from the general funds, meaning all taxpayers are subsidizing PICS.

In the 2014-15 fiscal year, the state system cost $6.8 million, while fees that year with its roughly 676,000 gun sales and transfers, only brought in about $3 million.

Of the thirteen states that conduct their own background checks, Pennsylvania is at the lower end at $2 whereas Nevada charges the most at $25.

This shortfall caused Sen. Camera Bartolotta, a Washington County Republican, to propose a bill last year, Senate Bill 725, to eliminate the PICS and use the national system instead, getting “rid of an ineffective and costly system,” she said, “that would save over $7 million per year as well as unburdening legitimate firearms retailers from unnecessary complications in the firearms purchase process.” (The bill was referred to the Judiciary Committee in April 2015 where it remained.)

She wants the FBI to take over, utilizing the NICS system already paid for by federal taxes, with no added expense to the seller or consumer.

The Pennsylvania State Police opposed that plan and has said the national system is missing records and allows for less thorough investigations of red flags that may come up.

Another fan of state controlled checks is U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch. She believes states that conduct their own background checks can be more thorough than the national system.

Opponents of discontinuing the state system argue the state police already use the NICS system but also search several state databases for additional records related to prohibited offenses and protection from abuse orders which might not appear in a national search. So, instead of abandoning a program they feel is more effective in keeping guns out of the wrong hands, some have suggested a modest increase in fees to make the system self-sustaining.

Every five years, the Legislative Budget and Finance Committee reviews the PICS program and every time the committee has suggested raising the fees, most recently suggesting the fee be raised an additional $6.

However, any such fee increase has its opponents as well.

Some Second Amendment advocates don’t take kindly to the notion of raising the price or, for that matter, even charging any fee at all to pay for a right guaranteed by the Constitution.

The debate continues. Discontinue the state controlled background check that many believe to provide more thorough screenings, or raise the fees imposed for an otherwise guaranteed right.

Tell us where you stand on this issue.