proposed laws

PA Bill Number: SR377

Title: A Concurrent Resolution calling for an amendment to the Constitution of the United States via a Convention of the States, pursuant to Article V of ...

Description: A Concurrent Resolution calling for an amendment to the Constitution of the United States via a Convention of the States, pursuant to Article V of ...

Last Action: Referred to STATE GOVERNMENT

Last Action Date: Sep 17, 2020

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Should it stay or should it go? Lawmakers at odds over future of state gun background check system :: 02/20/2020

A system used to determine whether customers are legally able to purchase guns is back in the limelight as state lawmakers weigh whether to alter the Pennsylvania Instant Check System’s funding mechanism — or eliminate it entirely.

The state’s background check system, known as PICS, came into focus on Thursday as legislators reviewed the proposed Pennsylvania State Police budget for the 2020-21 fiscal year. The spending plan outlined by Gov. Tom Wolf earlier this month proposes a $1.3 million increase in General Fund dollars for PICS, bringing its total budget to $8.7 million.

First implemented in 1998, PICS is used to conduct background checks on those who purchase firearms through licensed dealers. The system scours state criminal history records, juvenile records, mental health records, protection from abuse orders and other state data.

It also pulls federal criminal history records, involuntary commitments and citizenship information from the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS), which is run by the FBI.

Pennsylvania’s background check law also applies to handguns and short-barreled rifles sold in private transactions, which are required to be conducted under the supervision of a licensed dealer of sheriff’s office. Long guns such as AR-15s are not subject to the same background check requirements, according to the Pennsylvania State Police.

The cost of the program, which has hovered between $7 million and $9 million in recent years, has alarmed some House Republicans. They argue that PICS is largely redundant to NICS, adding that with the proper tweaks, NICS could serve the same purpose without the additional costs. Plus, the PICS system has been dogged by downtime, which they say further necessitates a switch to NICS.

“It’s duplicative. They have the same functions and today we have the technology to make the transition.” Rep. Jason Ortitay (R-Allegheny) told The PLS Reporter. “We could transition to NICS, make the rest of the country safer and save millions of dollars, all without losing any protections currently in place. “they have the same functions and today we have the technology to make the transition.

State police officials, however, say PICS supplements the federal background check system.

Lt. Col. Scott Price, the deputy commissioner of administration and professional responsibility for the state police, said PICS includes 1,500 protection from abuse orders that are not in NICS due to a lack of demographic data.

Ortitay said that could be fixed through better data sharing between the state police and other state agencies. He suggested that using driver’s license photos to assign identification numbers could allow those PFAs to be included in NICS.

Then comes the funding predicament.

The background check system is funded through a combination of instant check surcharges of $5 and legislative appropriations. However, a funding gap has developed between the fees levied and how much the program actually costs to operate, which has led to greater reliance on yearly appropriations.

2015 Legislative Budget and Finance Committee report found that “revenues from the instant check and firearm surcharge fees have not been sufficient to fully cover PICS program costs, with revenues generally meeting between 43 percent and 60 percent of PICS annual expenditures.”

Ortitay said that savings from a transition to away from PICS could be used to fund more state police cadet classes, a shared priority between both the state police and the Wolf Administration. But Democrats who support the system aren’t ready to give up on it.

Rep. Peter Schweyer (D-Lehigh) said the legislature should act to increase the instant check fee and make PICS revenue neutral. Schweyer said he believes the state’s background check system is more thorough than the federal government’s, which warrants consideration of a higher fee.

“Our Pennsylvania instant background check system is more robust than the federal government. It always has been, it always will be — because there are significant gaps in what the feds will put in their instant check system,” Schweyer told The PLS Reporter. “Just cover the cost of the background check. It’s not asking too much.”

Justin Sweitzer is a State Government Reporter for The PLS Reporter. Have a question, comment or tip? Email:

TOPICS:Background ChecksFirearmsGunsJason OrtitayPennsylvania State PolicePeter SchweyerPICS