FBI Database Problem Halts Gun Checks

BOSTON (05/20/2000) - The 66-hour failure this month of an FBI database used to perform background checks on gun buyers was long enough to allow criminals to buy guns, the FBI confirmed last week. It was also the latest example of technical difficulties with a database that's barely 18 months old.

FBI spokesman Steve Fisher attributed the initial failure of the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS), as well as the inability to automatically activate fail-over measures, to software problems.

"We went through standard protocols to try to restore service. Attempts for a quick recovery were unsuccessful, and we resorted to restoring the entire database from a tape backup system," Fisher said.

Fisher wouldn't confirm whether the agency had an automated recovery system, such as Oracle Corp.'s Parallel Server, in place. The system is reportedly built on an eight-CPU Silicon Graphics Inc. server running the SGI Irix operating system and Release 7.3.3 of the Oracle database.

The database, maintained in the agency's Clarksburg, West Virginia, facility, failed at 1 p.m. Thursday, May 11, and didn't return to service until 7:30 a.m. Sunday, May 14. During that time, no background checks could be started, halting gun sales nationwide. Also, the FBI couldn't finish the checks that were already in progress, freeing merchants to complete those handgun sales at their own discretion, according to Fisher.

The FBI is required to complete a check within three days; if it fails to do so, a merchant is free to go ahead with the sale.

By press time, the FBI hadn't confirmed the number of pending background checks that may have resulted in gun sales, but sources said it's probable that some criminals were able to buy guns during the outage.

Not a First

It wouldn't be the first time the database failed in its role of preventing gun sales to unqualified buyers. NICS checks not completed within the three-day period have resulted in more than 2,500 gun sales to criminals, according to a report published by the General Accounting Office (GAO) last month. That's because the database accesses multiple sources of information.

Oracle representatives declined to comment, noting that many elements can cause such failures in complex systems.

Analyst Teri Palanca at Giga Information Group Inc. in Cambridge, Massachusetts, agreed that the NICS probably has multiple points of potential failure, including the level of staff training. A vendor, she said, "can offer as much as possible to a customer, but you can't control how to take advantage of it."

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