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Obama Dispatches White House Tech Team to Expand Gun Background Check System

President Barack Obama pauses as he speaks about steps his administration is taking to reduce gun violence in the East Room of the White House

President Barack Obama pauses as he speaks about steps his administration is taking to reduce gun violence in the East Room of the White House // Carolyn Kaster/AP

The White House has dispatched its computer rescue squad to amp up the bandwidth of the FBI's instant background check system, a program at the center of sweeping firearm reforms.

On Tuesday, an emotional President Obama unveiled a series of executive actions to curb gun violence. Among them is a requirement for background checks on more gun buyers, including individuals who purchase firearms online and at gun shows.

Planned upgrades to the $91.5 million, 30-second background check program -- the FBI's National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) -- already are off track, according to Justice Department evaluations of major IT projects. 

The system "is experiencing a schedule slippage and warrants close monitoring by management," Justice’s Office of the Chief Information Officer reported in April 2015. "The increasing schedule and cost variances represent a risk to the investment."

Currently, licensed gun shops can vet a buyer through the system's "e-check" website or call a NICS call center employee to run a search. As of spring 2015, only 17 percent of firearms transactions were processed through the website. 

Now, the FBI is partnering with the White House U.S. Digital Service on desired enhancements, including "processing background checks 24 hours a day, seven days a week to improve overall response time and improving notification of local authorities when certain prohibited persons unlawfully attempt to purchase a firearm," according to a fact sheet on Tuesday's executive actions. 

Updates to the instant background check operation have been ongoing since system launch in 1998, according to Justice’s CIO shop. 

To alleviate strain on the system, the FBI will double the instant background check workforce by adding more than 230 staff, according to the fact sheet. The new hires will enhance the system's "ability to identify dangerous people who are prohibited from buying a gun before the transfer of a firearm is completed," administration officials said.

In May, the U.S. government placed the instant background check system on a list of federal websites that could use some help from the the tech squad. 

In a Tuesday speech at the White House, Obama touched on elements of his initiative designed to streamline background check procedures.

"We’re going to hire more folks to process applications faster, and we’re going to bring an outdated background check system into the 21st century," he said. 

Critics of expanding background checks, such as the National Rifle Association, note that incarcerated criminals usually steal guns, acquire them through the black market, or get them from family members or friends. Sandy Hook Elementary School shooter Adam Lanza killed 26 Americans using his mother's legally purchased guns. 

Obama on Tuesday argued back that saving even one life is reason enough to change the background check system.

"We are fed the excuse that common-sense reforms like background checks might not have stopped the last massacre, or the one before that, or the one before that, so why bother trying," he said. "I reject that thinking. We know we can’t stop every act of violence, every act of evil in the world. But maybe we could try to stop one act of evil, one act of violence." 

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