SALT LAKE CITY — A recent glitch in the Utah court system's database made it possible for people who should have been flagged during background checks because of mental competency issues to legally purchase a gun.
But Utah State Courts spokesman Geoff Fattah said the error has since been fixed and to the best of the state's knowledge, "We haven't heard of any incident resulting in a firearm purchase because of this."
Every night, the state sends data from the courts — such as criminal convictions, protective order filings and mental competency determinations — to the Utah Bureau of Criminal Identification.
Authorities at the bureau then screen that information, put it in their own database and send it to the FBI, which posts that information to databases such as the National Crime Information Center and the National Instant Criminal Background System. The information is used for background checks to determine if a person can legally purchase a firearm.
But recently, it was discovered that information collected for cases involving petitions for civil commitments and criminal incompetency were not being sent to the Utah Bureau of Criminal Identification, Fattah said.
It was determined that the problem was linked to an upgrade in November of the court system's database, he said.
"The code that specifically sent the case class of civil and criminal mental commitments and incompetencies, stopped working. And so it stopped sending that particular case material," Fattah said. "We immediately audited our entire database system. For whatever reason, it was this particular case class that failed to be transferred."
Cases involving violent felonies and protective orders were still being sent to the Utah Bureau of Criminal Identification, he said.
But as officials looked further into the problem, they discovered that Utah Bureau of Criminal Identification officials had not been passing along their information for more than a year, he said.
Lance Tyler, the Brady Section supervisor for the Utah bureau, said it was discovered that due to a database upgrade of their own, the bureau had stopped sending data to the FBI.
However, because Utah is one of 13 states that conducts background checks completely on its own, there was no change in how background checks were conducted from February through November 2017.
"We’re pretty confident that pretty few, if any, would be able to get through our system because we already had the records,” Tyler said.
And because of agreements Utah has with other states, even if a Utah resident who wasn't allowed to purchase a firearm had tried to go to another state to do so, that person still wouldn't have passed the background check.
"The only way it wouldn’t be covered during that time is if the person completely packed up and moved out of Utah, left the state, got a driver’s license in another state, and became the resident of another state,” he said.
As for the data that the Utah Bureau of Criminal Identification did not receive from the courts from November until March, Tyler said the number of people who are typically denied a gun sale because of a competency issue by the court is so small that it's unlikely anyone even tried to buy a gun during those four months.
"That only accounts for like .06 of 1 percent of all our denials for all our checks we do. And probably half of those come from other states who are already in the system,” he said. "It's probably close to .01 or .02 of 1 percent."
Most of those .01 to .02 of 1 percent of people, he added, are typically incarcerated or have been committed to a state hospital when their data is sent to the Utah Bureau of Criminal Identification, he said. If the problem had gone unnoticed for two to five years, he said the result could have been different.
Even though the courts have not been sending data for four months, Fattah said court administrators collected all of the cases with that coding filed over the past year — about 1,500 — and resubmitted them to the bureau as a precaution.
In addition, Fattah said steps have been taken to make sure the problem doesn't repeat itself.3 comments on this story
"On our end, our tech team has programmed new coding to send us an alert when that information is not going through to make sure that doesn't happen again," he said.
Likewise, Tyler said more fail-safe measures were installed at the Utah Bureau of Criminal Identification. He said the bureau is notified when data stops coming in from the court. But in a perfect storm of circumstances from November to March, he said, "The person getting that alert was no longer working for public safety so we didn’t know about it."
That alert now goes to several people, he said.