On Sunday, when Colorado returns to using its own employees to check the backgrounds of prospective gun buyers, the state will become the first to drop the FBI's National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NIX) since the program began last November.
The decision--made by Governor Bill Owens amid a swirl of politics and tragedy--is fine with the FBI, which has encouraged states to do their own checks, and has been applauded by local lawmakers.
But it may have startled some people a few blocks from the capitol, in the corporate headquarters of Denver-based TeleTech Holdings, Inc.
TeleTech is the company that answers the phones when licensed gun dealers in 35 states call an 800 number provided by the FBI. Founded by Denver billionaire Kenneth Tuchman, TeleTech, at 1700 Lincoln Street, employs 2,500 people at three call centers in Thornton and Montbello and another 9,500 at 22 other call centers elsewhere in the world. It specializes in providing telephone customer-service support, primarily for large corporations like AT&T, GTE, Motorola and UPS.
Hired by the FBI in September, Teletech has been processing background checks on potential gun purchasers since November 30, 1998, the day the FBI began to comply with a provision of the Brady Bill requiring the checks. Since that time, it has answered nearly 4.5 million phone calls.
"We hired TeleTech to do data entry," says Jim Kessler, who runs the NIX program from an FBI office in Clarksburg, West Virginia. "[Operators] enter the name, sex, height, Social Security, the serial number of the gun and other information on a form, and that is the end of their business. They don't have access to the information themselves."
Kessler says 73 out of every one hundred checks gets an immediate "proceed" or "delay" response from the FBI databank. The other 27 checks are forwarded to an FBI employee because they were flagged by the computer system. "Twenty-two out of those 27, we resolve in two hours," he says. "For the other five, we have three days" to respond.
But the system has drawn heavy fire from local politicians and media--still raw from the Columbine massacre--ever since Castle Rock resident Simon Gonzales bought a 9mm pistol from a licensed Denver dealer and shot to death his three young daughters before Castle Rock police killed him in a shootout.
Colorado, which used the Colorado Bureau of Investigation for its checks until March, had switched to the FBI to save money. Although Gonzales's estranged wife had filed a restraining order against him, which would have made it illegal for him to buy a gun, the FBI database doesn't include restraining order information, so Gonzales passed the background check when his name was entered on June 23.
Owens--who has been criticized himself for doing little to encourage stricter laws for gun purchases after Columbine--appeared itchy to take some decisive action and signed an executive order on July 1 that dropped the FBI and reinstated the CBI.
The CBI estimates it will need twelve employees and $605,000 to get the program up and running, and while it will still be able to tap into the FBI's criminal database, it will also use its own extensive information--without going through TeleTech.
Paul Bresson, a Washington, D.C.-based spokesman for the FBI, says his agency has always encouraged the states to do the checks themselves because they usually have more complete information on local residents--and he didn't appreciate the FBI being made the scapegoat for the Gonzales shootings. "Our system is not flawed in any way," he says.
"To put it quite simply, we are only as good as the information the states provide to us." Bresson adds that the name of every prospective gun buyer is run against 30 million criminal records, and that the FBI has denied 48,000 firearm applications since November.
TeleTech spokeswoman Jean Wagner is close-mouthed about the specifics of the company's contract with the FBI--which is supposed to run until February 4, 2000, with four one-year renewal options--and she wouldn't say how Owens's decision would affect her company. "When you sign a contract with a government agency, especially the FBI, you are kicked into a whole new level of confidentiality," she says. "Political factors may or may not play into every contract. There are always risks that are totally out of your control when doing business with any company. This is just one of those events."
But a September 1998 press release notes that the company expected to use 180 employees for the job at two call centers outside Colorado.
Although Kessler doesn't know the contract specifics, since it was awarded through another company, he says he thinks it was tied to the volume of calls, meaning any state that drops out of the program would affect TeleTech's bottom line.
Now TeleTech may have another worry.
"When we started this up, thank goodness we had the call center," says Kessler, pointing out that NIX began during the holiday buying season. "But now we are looking at taking over the call-center system ourself. We have a year-to-year contract with TeleTech, and we built it flexible enough that we can jump out whenever we want."
Kessler says the FBI--which uses 540 of its own employees to handle the background checks that require investigation--is looking at a system that would allow licensed gun dealers to remotely access the FBI database themselves, avoiding TeleTech completely. "I don't want to say that too loud, though," he adds. "Our call-center company might go running."
In announcing its contract with the FBI last year, however, publicly traded TeleTech, which is actually a subcontractor for San Diego-based Science Applications International Corporation, must have known what it was getting into. It warned investors about the "risks and uncertainties" of doing business with the government and advised them about the possibility that the contract could be terminated at any time. It also noted that the expected duration, the start date, the number of employees needed and the "expected impact [the contract] will have on TeleTech" were all subject to change.
But the company couldn't have had any idea just how quickly some of those "risks and uncertainties" would appear--in its home state, no less.