Democracy Dies in Darkness

PowerPost | Perspective

Lying to buy a gun? Don’t worry about the feds.

Prosecutions are almost nonexistent.

September 11, 2018 at 5:01 PM

Attorney General Jeff Sessions told U.S. attorneys "to enhance prosecution of cases involving false statements" during gun purchases. Almost no cases were prosecuted in fiscal 2017. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

If you lied to buy a firearm, fear not the feds.

Your chances of being prosecuted by the Justice Department for falsifying information to illegally buy a gun are almost zero.

Reviews by the National Instant Criminal Background Check System in fiscal 2017 led to 112,000 gun-purchase denials because people were in forbidden categories, according to a new report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO). The Justice Department’s Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) investigated 12,700 of those cases.

How many of the investigated cases resulted in prosecutions?

Twelve.

That’s 0.09 percent of the cases ATF investigated.

That means the crooks, the wife beaters and the homicidal maniacs who lie to get a gun have little reason to worry that Uncle Sam will get them for faking on Form 4473. It lists nine questions designed to cull those who should not be strapped. The questions include: “Have you ever been convicted in any court of a felony,” “Are you a fugitive from justice,” and “Have you ever been adjudicated as a mental defective.”

That raises this question from Avery Gardiner, co-president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence:If it's official DOJ policy to enforce existing gun laws, why isn't the government following its own policy?”

Pennsylvania, by comparison, makes Sam look like a real slacker.

While the Justice Department prosecuted only a dozen cases, the Quaker State had 472 convictions, not just prosecutions, during fiscal 2017. “In 2014, the state changed its policy to investigate all firearms denials,” the GAO explained.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions attempted to boost prosecutions with a March 12, 2018, memo to U.S. attorneys. “Criminals and other prohibited persons who attempt to thwart the background check process by lying on the required forms threaten to undermine this important crime prevention tool,” he wrote. “Such conduct cannot be tolerated. We must vigilantly protect the integrity of the background check system through appropriate prosecution of those who attempt to circumvent the law.”

Sessions instructed federal prosecutors “to enhance prosecution of cases involving false statements on ATF Form 4473,” which he called “lie-and-try” cases. Lying on the form is a felony that can bring up to 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine.

But the DOJ’s deeds fall far short of Sessions’s declarations.

ATF blamed the almost invisible federal prosecution rate on the number of denial cases that more than doubled from fiscal 2011 to 2017 and the time-intensive nature of the investigations.

The GAO’s report said U.S. attorneys “generally do not accept and prosecute denial cases that do not involve aggravating circumstances, as these cases can require significant effort for prosecutors relative to the short length of punishment and may offer little value to public safety because the offender does not obtain the firearm, compared to other cases involving gun violence.”

As the number of denial cases multiplied, investigators did not. The GAO said “ATF data show that special agent staffing across … six selected field divisions collectively only increased by one special agent from fiscal years 2011 through 2017.”

The Justice Department did not respond to a request for comment.

The report “reveals some alarming gaps in how we investigate and prosecute firearms denials,” said Rep. José E. Serrano (N.Y.), the top Democrat on the House Appropriations justice subcommittee, who requested the study. “We need additional investment and improved practices to prevent dangerous individuals from purchasing guns, and to punish them when they attempt to do so.”

Calling the dearth of prosecutions “shocking,” the Brady Campaign’s Gardiner said she agrees with Sessions that existing federal gun laws should be enforced.

“But his Department of Justice is not doing that,” she added.

She wants Justice to aggressively enforce gun laws and Congress to be more aggressive in its oversight.

After suing the department to get records related to background checks, the Brady Campaign found the laws are repeatedly and openly flouted.

“In those documents, we've seen time and time again dealers going ahead and transferring guns when someone answered a question on background check form ‘I am a felon,’ ‘I am subject to a restraining order,’ ‘I was dishonorably discharged from the military,’ ” Gardiner said in a phone interview. “So, people who are not allowed to buy guns are actually answering the form honestly and still get a gun.”

In a letter to Sessions in March, she and co-president Kris Brown said the documents point to the need for Justice to focus on dealers as well as buyers.

“These documents confirm that ATF has already identified many gun dealers that repeatedly engage in knowing or negligent straw transactions, but many of them are allowed to keep their licenses to sell guns,” they wrote. “Not only have these gun dealers evaded prosecution for their criminal acts, but they also remain in business profiting from illegal gun sales, where they can continue to supply firearms to those who criminally traffic them. As an urgent matter of public safety, the Department of Justice must address these gun dealers through prosecutions and license revocations.”

This situation, Gardiner said, is not a battle line between those favoring gun control and gun rights.

“None of the gun rights supporters that I speak to think that felons should have easy access to guns,” she said.

The National Rifle Association had no comment.

Read more:

Top civil servants leaving Trump administration at a quick clip

The real resisters: Federal employees who beat Trump in court

Questions remain after court rejects action by Trump against federal unions. Will he obey?

Trump likes nondisclosure agreements, but should federal agencies use secrecy pacts?

Survey says: Science, and government scientists, suffer under Trump


Columnist Joe Davidson covers federal government issues in the Federal Insider, formerly the Federal Diary. Davidson previously was an assistant city editor at The Washington Post and a Washington and foreign correspondent with the Wall Street Journal, where he covered federal agencies and political campaigns.

Post Recommends
Outbrain

We're glad you're enjoying The Washington Post.

Get access to this story, and every story, on the web and in our apps with our Basic Digital subscription.

Welcome to The Washington Post

Thank you for subscribing
Keep reading for $10 $1
Show me more offers