GOP appropriator calls on DOJ to hike funding for gun background checks

A top GOP appropriator is urging the Obama administration to put more money toward the criminal background check system underlying gun sales.

Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.) wants the Justice Department (DOJ) to increase funding for state grants designed to prevent dangerous people from buying and owning firearms.

Wolf, the chairman of the House Commerce, Justice and Science Appropriations subcommittee, says "funds are available" under the current government spending bill for two separate grant programs aimed to "keep guns out of the hands of prohibited individuals."

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He's asking the DOJ to "reprogram" its budget to dedicate more funds to both the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) Act Record Improvement Program and the National Criminal History Improvement Program.

"I believe that improving the data in the NICS index will improve the effectiveness of the national background check system and thereby reduce gun violence," Wolf wrote Tuesday in a letter to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder.

It's not the first time NICS funding has been on Wolf's radar. The Virginia Republican included $12 million for NICS in the fiscal 2013 budget that passed through his subcommittee last spring — a $7 million increase above FY2012 levels.

That spending bill passed the GOP-led House, but was never taken up by the Democratically-controlled Senate.

A DOJ spokesman said this month that the agency has shuffled funds in recent years to bolster state efforts to improve background checks for gun sales, particularly the NICS Improvement Amendments Act grants.

A summary of those steps indicates the agency "refocused" grant requests in FY2011 and FY2012 "to prioritize identification and submission of mental health records for persons prohibited from possessing a firearm" — a population representing "one of the most underreported categories of prohibiting information," the agency says.

Overall, DOJ says it provided states with $20 million in grant money through that program in 2011, and another $11.1 million in 2012.

Efforts to improve NICS screenings have come into renewed focus since last month's grade-school massacre in Newtown, Conn., where 27 people — including 20 children — were shot and killed by a lone gunman.

The tragedy stirred President Obama to launch the most aggressive gun-reform push by any administration in a generation. Senate Democrats are scheduled to begin examining some of those proposals, including improvements to the background-check system, next week.