Federal authorities are working to take back thousands of firearms that were sold to individuals who should have been denied the right to make the purchase based on prior criminal histories, mental health issues, or various other problems that would otherwise disqualify them. The discovery highlights a persistent problem with the background check system.
A review by USA Today discovered over 4,000 FBI requests issued to agents at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) last year for the retrieval of firearms that were sold to prohibited buyers, marking the largest number of requests in 10 years. In the previous year, only 2,892 requests were made.
Some of the issue may stem from a rule that allows a sale to go forward if the results of an FBI National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) review fails to complete within the allotted 72-hour period.
When the FBI identifies a sale that should not have been permitted, ATF agents are asked to retrieve the firearms.
As ATF agents go forward with retrieving a firearm, often considered an issue of public safety, they must put themselves at risk by confronting the buyer.
“These are people who shouldn’t have weapons in the first place, and it just takes one to do something that could have tragic consequences,” said former ATF official David Chipman, who helped oversee the retrieval program. “You don’t want ATF to stand for ‘after the fact.’”
The sentiment was also expressed by former assistant FBI director Stephen Morris, who said, “They are very aware of the inherent risk to law enforcement officers when they [seek] a firearm retrieval.”
The number of requests may not represent the full amount of firearms that must be retrieved, as multiple guns can be purchased in a single transaction based on the results of one background check.
It is not clear how many requests have been acted upon or how many firearms were successfully seized.
The startling number of requests made by the FBI brings to light additional issues with the background check system which has recently come under fire after an Air Force veteran with a domestic violence conviction was able to purchase firearms that were used in an attack on a church in Texas.
26 people were killed during the massacre at the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs that took place in early November. It was discovered that the shooter should not have been able to purchase the guns based on his criminal history, but the US Air Force failed to properly report the conviction, leading it not to appear when the gunman’s background check was run.