State and local government law enforcement agencies are kicking criminal-record database development and improvement into high gear to meet the 1998 deadline for a handgun purchaser instant background check system. The 1993 Brady Act mandates an instant background check on handgun purchasers so that convicted felons, among others, cannot buy a handgun on the open market.

To help create the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS), a total of about $88 million in federal funds was distributed to states last year as part of the Brady and Child Protection acts. The federal government granted each state at least some money under the National Criminal History Improvement Program (NCHIP, pronounced "N-Chip"), but states behind in records automation were granted more than others.

NATIONWIDE SYSTEM ARCHITECTURE

The plan for a nationwide background-check system is to use the Interstate Identification Index (III), as the backbone for noncriminal-related background checks. The III now includes criminal records sent by the 30 states participating in the system.

The plan is to "build on the existing system," said Emmet Rathbun, unit chief of the program developments section at the FBI, which is leading the project. "We're not talking about a whole new system. It will be an enhanced version of what states do now."

States making background checks on handgun purchasers will query the III. If there is a hit, the query will be pointed toward the appropriate state database. States will retain detailed data on what the person was arrested for and the disposition, or resolution, of the arrest.

By having the states retain the records, a "national system, rather than a federal system" is being created, said Gary Cooper, director of SEARCH, a criminal justice research and consulting organization specializing in information technology. "The states take responsibility for the records."

ILLINOIS SET UP

Illinois provides a good example of how the background checks work. In 1992, the state installed an instant background-check system called FTIP. Gun dealers call a 900 number which connects them with the state Bureau of Identification. There, operators run a check on the purchaser's name, as given by the gun dealer. The name is run through the state criminal database, the federal NCIC, an outstanding warrant database and a few other state databases. The checks are normally completed within a few minutes.

Criminal records, including dispositions, are submitted by circuit courts to the state, which has a private vendor input the data into the FTIP. Once records are received by the state, there is about a four- to six-week delay before the database is updated, said Mark McDonald, spokesman for the Illinois State Police, which runs the program.

But how long it takes county courts to get the data to the state varies depending on the amount of automation in the courts, as well as other factors. "It's a constant process trying to educate them to get [the data] to us in a timely manner," McDonald said. "And some are very good about getting it to us."

RECORD COMPLETENESS

Possibly the most important factor in making the background-check system work is ensuring that the electronic records are updated and as accurate as possible. Technology has made updating records more important than in the past because searchable databases are now widely available to law enforcement agencies, including officers on the street.

Disposition data is important for handgun background checks, because a person has to be convicted of a felony, not just accused, to be denied a handgun purchase. But there's a lot of work to be done. The Bureau of Justice Statistics reported last year that of the 25.5 million state records available nationwide, only 14.6 million of the available records included case disposition data.

States have varying degrees of automation and currentness in their criminal databases. A 1993 Bureau of Justice Statistics booklet, the