Were police notified after St. Louis school shooter failed background check for gun purchase?

Were police notified after St. Louis school shooter failed background check for gun purchase?
(AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli, file)

Police in St. Louis, Missouri announced on Thursday that the 19-year old who murdered a teacher and student at his former high school this week had purchased the rifle used in the attack from a private seller after he previously failed a background check for a gun purchase at an area retailer. While some gun control activists are pointing to this as a reason to pass “universal background checks”, there’s been very little discussion so far about whether or not state and local police were notified about the NICS denial; something that was supposed to happen within 24 hours under a law signed by Joe Biden earlier this year.


The Bipartisan NICS Denial Notification Act was signed to great fanfare back in March, with supporters arguing the legislation would allow for more prosecutions for falsifying information on the background check forms gun buyers fill out when purchasing a firearm at retail.

“The NICS system has many flaws, one being the lack of notification to local law enforcement when a denial occurs. In many cases, local law enforcement would benefit from knowing the individual is attempting to purchase a firearm,” stated Larry Cosme, National President of the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association (FLEOA). “This bill would ensure that gap is closed, and law enforcement can coordinate to stop prohibited persons from accessing weapons.”

For the 13 states that run their own background checks, local law enforcement can investigate prohibited persons when a background check fails. In the 37 states and the District of Columbia, where the FBI performs some or all background checks, local authorities are generally unaware when a background check is failed.

In Senator Coons’ view, the latter lack valuable law enforcement intelligence that can be used to keep their communities safe, noting individuals who are willing to “lie and try” to buy a gun may be dangerous and more likely to acquire guns through other avenues. An internal review of Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) data from 1998 to 2006 found between 10 and 21 percent of people with denied background checks were arrested for another crime involving guns. In 2020, NICS rejected over 300,000 firearms transactions—a denial rate of less than 1 percent. The denials included 42 percent who had a criminal record, while others did not qualify because they were fugitives from justice, under indictment, or had restraining orders against them.


Authorities haven’t said why the 19-year old failed his background check, and so far they’ve been mum about whether or not the Missouri State Highway Patrol or the St. Louis police department were informed as required by law. The teen attempted to purchase a gun on October 8th but was turned down, and a week later the teenager’s mother contacted police because she was concerned that her son had acquired a rifle.

Police said Thursday they did not have the authority to take the gun because Missouri does not have a red flag law.
A third person, known to the family, eventually took the gun away, but Harris somehow retrieved it.
Missouri Gov. Mike Parson on Thursday met in downtown St. Louis with the officers who responded to Monday’s shooting. He praised the officers, then after the meeting argued that red flag laws would not have stopped the shooting.
“You got a criminal that committed a criminal act, and all the laws in the world are not going to stop those things,” Parson said.
Just days before Harris attempted to purchase the gun in St. Charles, a new federal law took effect that required the FBI to notify local or state law enforcement when a person legally prohibited from purchasing firearms fails a background check by the National Instant Criminal Background Check System.
The law, the NICS Denial Identification Act, stipulates the FBI notify law enforcement within 24 hours. A spokesperson for St. Charles police said earlier Thursday that they had not been notified. Neither St. Louis police nor the Missouri Highway Patrol immediately said if they had been notified.
A spokesperson for the local FBI office said the background check system is run by a separate office; she did not immediately have more information.
Missouri police didn’t need a “red flag” law to confiscate the teen’s gun, at least if they were aware of the fact that he was ineligible to purchase one. Under both state and federal law those who have been involuntarily committed to a mental institution are prohibited from possessing firearms, and multiple media outlets have reported that the murderer’s family had been concerned about his mental health to the point that they had “committed” him to treatment.
We don’t know for sure if that’s what triggered the NICS denial, but we do know that if local police had been informed about the NICS denial they were options available to them, including removing the gun from the home and filing charges against the teen for illegally possessing the firearm in question.
Gov. Parson is right when he says that committed criminals intent on destruction can find a way regardless of what the laws are, but it also appears that local authorities may have missed a golden opportunity to at least impede this attack, at maybe prevent it altogether, because they were never notified about his history as federal law requires. Instead of pointing to the supposed need for “red flag” laws or universal background checks (which have done nothing to reduce the violent crime rate in states like Colorado), we should be asking why the NICS Denial Notification Act apparently didn’t work as promised.

Join the conversation as a VIP Member