In 1998, America's law enforcement community began using an automated background check system to approve or deny gun purchases instantly. Since then, millions of Americans have had their backgrounds checked by police who use the FBI's National Instant Criminal Background Check System to keep guns out of the hands of convicted felons, illegal aliens, fugitives from justice and several other categories of people.

In spite of the system, the wrong people still buy guns. Over a 30-month period, 10,000 felons and others prohibited from buying guns passed background checks and obtained firearms because most states have failed to adequately automate background check records, according to a report released in 2002 by the Americans for Gun Safety Foundation. The report, Broken Records: How America's Faulty Background Check System Allows Criminals to Get Guns, graded states on their record keeping and information sharing.

Just under half the states -- 22 to be exact -- received an F.

Not all states fared so poorly. One state in particular made a major technology investment to keep its record keeping accurate and improve its ability to prevent criminals and other illegal buyers from obtaining guns. The commonwealth of Massachusetts deployed what it says is the most comprehensive, instant record-checking system for gun owners and purchasers.

The new system, dubbed MIRCS (Massachusetts Instant Record Check System), combines biometrics with the state's criminal history database. Would-be purchasers must pass a background check both when applying for a license to carry a firearm and when purchasing the gun. Massachusetts issues 78,000 firearms licenses every year.

"This is the most comprehensive system of its kind in the country," said Barry LaCroix, executive director of the Massachusetts Criminal History Systems Board (CHSB). "The Web-based system has expedited and standardized the process for running background checks."

MIRCS replaces an operation that relied on paper and mainframe computers, and took weeks to process an application, said Jim Slater, CIO for the Executive Office of Public Safety, which oversees the CHSB.

"Massachusetts has some of the most restrictive gun laws in the nation," he said. "But the existing system built up a tremendous backlog because it was still paper-based in the local police departments where residents have to apply for gun licenses."

It was also inefficient, costing the state and police time and money.

Web-Based Verification

In 2000, the state decided to automate the front end of the application process, allowing local police to file forms from computers and eliminating the paper trail that made the old system slow and cumbersome. It was originally designed as a mainframe-based solution, something the CHSB wanted to change when it became clear the process could work less expensively on the Web. A small firm called xFact, from North Andover, Mass., designed and built the front-end application.

Massachusetts spent approximately $4.6 million on MIRCS, using money from the state's IT bond program, which borrows money from financial markets for state government systems that can demonstrate a return on investment in terms of money and value. The funds paid for design, application development and hardware, said Curtis Wood, deputy director of the CHSB. In addition, the project paid for installation of a workstation, printer, fingerprint reader and secure router in every local police department in the state, he said.

Some equipment purchased by the CHSB, including the router and workstation, is part of a broader law enforcement program to give police in Massachusetts integrated, encrypted access to FBI and other databases over the state's integrated criminal justice system infrastructure.

"We were able to leverage the budget for the project to cover a number of related applications," explained Wood.

When applicants arrive at the local police department, they pay a fee for the license, and have their picture taken and fingerprints scanned with the

Tod Newcombe  |  Features Editor