Years of growing gun sales have overtaxed the federal background-check system. By law, sales can proceed after three business days, whether or not the check is completed. As a result, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives agents bear the responsibility and risks of retrieving weapons from people with serious criminal or mental-health histories, buyers who managed to purchase firearms before their pasts caught up with them, reports the Wall Street Journal. The job thrusts the ATF into a politically fraught world, where some gun owners question why they were able to buy firearms and then have federal agents arrive at their homes to take them back.
In 2017, the government identified more than 6,000 prohibited buyers who were flagged after the three-day deadline for background checks. That number was up 44 percent over 2016. The FBI, which conducts background checks, faces missing and incomplete state and local records, software glitches and too few employees working on the checks. The FBI refers the delayed denials to the ATF, which must track down and seize the weapons. Thirteen states perform their own background checks, and most handle their own firearms seizures. In one such state, Illinois, a man last week killed five people at a manufacturing plant with a handgun he shouldn’t have been allowed to buy because of an assault conviction. The gunman lied about his criminal record on an application for a firearm permit. Illinois authorities are looking into why a background check missed his conviction, and why his gun wasn’t retrieved. Most of the U.S. counts on ATF to perform that role. ATF, with 2,600 agents, is among the smallest federal law enforcement agencies. Authorities are driven by worries that buyers slip through the system to harm others with a weapon that should never have been sold to them.