Florida skips gun background checks for a year after employee forgets login

In Florida, the site of recent mass shootings such as at the Stoneman Douglas High School and the Pulse nightclub, more than a year went by in which the state approved applications without carrying out background checks. This meant the state was unaware if there was a cause to refuse a licence to allow somebody to carry a hidden gun – for example, mental illness or drug addiction.

The reason is dismayingly banal: an employee couldn’t remember her login.

The login is for the FBI’s background check database, or National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS).

The database was created in 1993 by the FBI and the US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. States and firearm retailers can use it to check on the criminal and mental health history of those who want to buy a firearm, including their histories in other states. The database flags applicants who’ve served more than one year in prison, have been convicted of drug use in the past year, are undocumented immigrants, were involuntarily committed or deemed to have a “mental defect” by a court, or who were dishonorably discharged from the military.

As the Tampa Bay Times reported on Friday, a previously unreported investigation from the Office of Inspector General (OIG) found that the employee in charge of the background checks was rubberstamping applications without checking applicants’ backgrounds.

The investigation found that the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services stopped using the FBI’s crime database in February 2016 when the employee, Lisa Wilde, couldn’t log in. She was the only one who regularly used the database, with the exception of a mailroom supervisor who was “barely trained” on the system.

It only came to light in late March 2017, when an OIG staffer noticed that she wasn’t receiving concealed weapon license (CWL) applications from anybody who’d been turned down – a situation that was “unusual,” she said. When interviewed, Wilde said that she’d had a login issue with the database but hadn’t followed up to resolve the problem.

Not only that, but colleagues “consistently” reminded her that the NICS database was supposed to be checked daily. She ignored them – at least, she didn’t respond until March 2017, when she said that to her mind, the NICS responsibility shouldn’t belong to her department.

In interviews with investigators, Wilde acknowledged that her actions were negligent and that she “dropped the ball”:

I know I did that. I should have been doing it and I didn’t.

But on Friday, Wilde told the Tampa Bay Times that she could’t figure out why she’d ever been given the duty in the first place: she was working in the mailroom when she was given oversight of the database in 2013.

I didn’t understand why I was put in charge of it.

Over the course of time that Florida didn’t check the database, the state has been fast-tracking CWL applications, and its politicians have been bragging about how many licenses to conceal weapons it’s issued as well as how speedily they’re getting approved.

In 2012, Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam held a media conference to celebrate the issuance of the 1 millionth CWL, noting that since he’d been elected two years before, the time it took to process an application fell from 12 weeks to 35 days. According to the Tampa Bay Times, Florida now has 1.8 million concealed weapon permit holders.

The shootings at the Pulse nightclub, which left 50 dead, occurred during the time that Florida’s background checks had lapsed, though the shooter acquired his firearms license before that time.

On Friday, Wilde told the news outlet that her department was overwhelmed by the number of applications and the pressure from supervisors to speed up processing.

Within hours of the Tampa Bay Times having published the story, Putnam’s office reached out to say that once it learned about the background check lapse, it “immediately” reviewed 365 applications and revoked most of them: in all, 291 concealed weapons permits.

Putnam’s office said that “a criminal background investigation was completed on every single application.” The Agriculture Department spokesperson echoed that statement, telling the Tampa Bay Times that it conducted background checks using two other databases, the Florida Crime Information Center database and the National Crime Information Center database.

You know what would have helped in this case? A password manager.

They don’t just store passwords, after all – they also store user names, which can be an enormous help when dealing with the strings of similar looking characters such as L, l, I, I and 1, at the root of so many help desk calls. They even help with phishing, because they won’t automatically enter your credentials into the wrong site.

We’ve been banging the drum for password managers for years now, and we’ve written about some that are pretty easy to use. I guess Wilde isn’t a Naked Security reader.