A Trump administration plan to crack down on people who lie to buy guns relies on federal agents and prosecutors who are already overwhelmed with other responsibilities, the Associated Press reports. Prosecutors and the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives have historically preferred to use their limited resources to deal with violent crimes rather than aggressively pursue people who give false information on background check forms. Lying on the forms is a felony, and prosecutors sometimes struggle to win convictions. By enforcing existing federal law, Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ plan allows the Trump administration to show it is taking action on gun crime after the Florida school shootings.
Tens of thousands of people are denied guns each year because of problems with their background checks. Prosecutions for lying during that process are rare. ATF referred more than 500 so-called lie-and-try cases to federal prosecutors between 2008 and 2015, but fewer than 32 each year were considered for prosecution. Sessions told federal prosecutors to focus primarily on people denied guns because they are violent felons, fugitives or have domestic violence convictions. Some current and former law enforcement officials feared that emphasis on such cases would detract from more pressing concerns, such as prosecuting people who buy guns on behalf of felons or those who try to buy guns illegally and are successful. Lie-and-try cases are hard to try in court because prosecutors must convince a jury that a prospective gun buyer intended to lie, rather than just made a mistake or misunderstood what the law allows. “There is a reason why they are not getting prosecuted heavily at the moment, and that’s because they are less-than-compelling cases. They’re not getting guns,” John Walsh, a former U.S. attorney in Colorado, said. “This is in the nature of window dressing.”