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Pennsylvania’s Gun Background Check System Saw ‘Surge In Requests’

Ringo H.W. Chiu
People wait in a line to enter a gun store in Culver City, Calif., March 15, 2020.

The Pennsylvania Instant Check System, which is used to determine if someone can legally acquire a license to carry a firearm or obtain a firearm for a seller, saw a “surge in requests” earlier this week, said Major Gary Dance, director of the Pennsylvania State Police Bureau of Records and Identification.

The system completed 4,342 transactions on March 17, compared to 1,359 transactions on the corresponding Tuesday in March of last year. In the statement, Dance said an “isolated server issue” caused the Tuesday morning outage from 8 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. The second outage happened later between 5 p.m. and 8:40 p.m. Tuesday because of a backlog of requests.

On Tuesday, the Cambria County Sheriff’s Office posted on Facebook that it was temporarily unable to process or issue concealed carry permits due to problems in Harrisburg. Kim Stolfer, president of Firearms Owners Against Crime, said the background check system was “a disaster” all day Tuesday.

“So, in essence, the PA State Police has shut off the Right To Keep and Bear Arms for citizens and Sheriffs can’t do their job and citizens cannot also get a License To Carry Concealed Firearms,” Stolfer said in an email.

State police officials said they regretted the inconvenience, but also stressed that the problems were unintentional.

“The Pennsylvania State Police is working with its vendor to increase processing power to avoid future backlogs and will adjust staffing as needed to meet demand. Rumors circulating on social media that PICS has been shutdown as part of the commonwealth’s response to the COVID-19 epidemic are false,” Dance said in the statement. “PICS is, and will remain, operational.”

The background check system is used by county sheriffs, the Philadelphia Police Department and licensed firearm dealers.

Multiple news organizations have reported on increased demand for guns and ammunition, driven by customers concerned that the coronavirus outbreak could spur social unrest or interrupt the food system.

On Monday, Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf said all non-essential businesses should close in the state to reduce the risk of spreading the coronavirus. The Wolf administration’s guidelines for which businesses are essential or non-essential don’t specifically mention firearms dealers, but do say non-health care “retail facilities” should close.

Wolf say he’s not requiring the closure of non-essential businesses yet, but he believes he has the power to shut them down under a disaster emergency declaration he signed March 6.

Wolf so far has taken action to close public K-12 schools and to require bars and restaurants to stop dine-in options. He’s also directed child care centers licensed by the state to close, although his administration has created a waiver program for facilities.