GAO: Only 12 of 13,000 Denied Gun Purchasers Were Prosecuted in FY '17

By Susan Jones | September 11, 2018 | 12:09pm EDT
(Photo from ATF website)

( - Individuals who are prohibited from purchasing firearms for any reason (mental health, criminal convictions, etc.) are rarely investigated or prosecuted when they do try to buy a weapon, a federal study has determined.

According to a report published by the the Government Accountability Office on Sept. 5:

In fiscal year 2017, "approximately 25.6 million firearm-related background checks were processed through the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS), and about 181,000 (about 1 percent) of the attempted purchases were denied because the background check revealed that the individual was prohibited from possessing a firearm under federal or state law."

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives referred about 13,000 of those firearms denials to its field divisions for investigation. U.S. Attorney's Offices (USAO) considered 50 of those 13,000 cases for prosecution, and actually prosecuted a total of twelve as of June 2018. An additional 10 cases were pending or awaiting prosecution as of June 2018, GAO said.

All would-be gun purchasers must fill out ATF Form 4473, which is run through NICS to determine whether the person is prohibited from receiving the firearm. Lying on Form 4473 in an attempt to thwart the background check is a felony that carries penalties of up to 10 years in prison and up to a $250,000 fine.

The GAO noted that on March 12, 2018, Attorney General Jeff Sessions issued a memo directing all United States Attorneys to enhance prosecution of cases involving false statements on the ATF Form 4473, which the memo refers to as “lie-and-try” cases.

But ATF and selected states reported "challenges" in investigating and prosecuting firearms denial cases, which tend to be time- and resource-intensive.

ATF policy says field divisions may send "warning notices" to denied individuals instead of prosecuting them, but ATF has not assessed whether its field divisions are using those warning notices.

The GAO study concludes:

At the federal level, the number of firearms denial cases ATF has referred to its field divisions for investigation has increased substantially over recent years, which has placed a burden on field division resources. At the same time, field division resources have not increased, and the number of USAO prosecutions remains low -- totaling 12 in fiscal year 2017.

Assessing the extent to which ATF field divisions use warning notices for standard denials in lieu of prosecution would provide ATF headquarters greater awareness of agency-wide deterrence efforts, and better inform the agency as to whether any policy changes are needed.

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