The Clinton administration has assembled a special 60-person law enforcement team to locate and retrieve up to 1,700 guns that were sold to felons and other ineligible buyers because the FBI did not complete their criminal background checks within the mandatory three-day limit.
The administration, which gun advocacy groups have accused of insufficiently enforcing existing gun regulations, said yesterday "the quickest possible recovery" of such firearms is a top priority for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. To help the bureau, 20 agents each have been assigned, for at least 60 days, from the Secret Service, Customs Service and Internal Revenue Service, all divisions of the Treasury Department.
The new program, outlined yesterday in a 17-page Treasury Department report, touches on two sensitive issues for advocates of gun ownership. On one hand, they have opposed new gun control proposals by arguing that the government has not tried hard enough to enforce laws already on the books. But the image of federal agents knocking on someone's door to collect a gun raises deep-seated fears among those who contend that confiscation is the ultimate goal of gun control advocates.
"This validates one big concern that we have about any government background checks: That it will lead to gun owner registration and even confiscations," said John Velleco, spokesman for Gun Owners of America. "The law says the government has up to three business days to do the check, or the sales goes through, period. . . . This is not law enforcement, this is government abuse of liberty."
ATF officials say their targets are not innocent owners entitled to keep their firearms. A prohibited buyer, they say, would have to falsify a purchase application in order to obtain a gun with the help of a delayed background check.
Under the five-year-old Brady law, someone seeking to buy a gun from a licensed firearms dealer must undergo a criminal background check by the FBI. Felons, illegal drug users and illegal aliens are among those barred from buying guns.
Most background checks are completed within two hours, thanks to a computerized "instant check" system inaugurated seven months ago. But some take longer, and if a check has not been completed within three business days, the dealer is instructed to make the sale.
In about 2,000 cases thus far, the delayed background checks concluded that the purchase should have been barred. ATF has retrieved about 300 of those guns, and now is "committed to retrieving all such firearms from prohibited persons," according to yesterday's report, Implementation of the Brady Law.
ATF spokesman Jeff Roehm said his agency is aware that critics have accused the administration of lax enforcement of gun laws. "We are always trying to enforce what we have on the books," he said, adding that the 2,000 "delayed denial" purchases are a recent phenomenon. "This is a new avenue that the violations are coming to our attention," he said.
Asked if some felons could pose a danger to officers seeking to retrieve their guns, Roehm said: "Any time you approach a person who is prohibited from purchasing a firearm" but has done so anyway, "you have certainly created a dangerous situation." But agents prepare carefully for such possible confrontations, he said. "We certainly don't just run out on these things. A lot of background work is done."
Yesterday's report said a recent "delayed denial" gun purchase in Ohio was made by a Crips gang member, whose criminal record should have kept him from buying a gun. "The firearm was used less than 24 hours after its acquisition by the gang members to commit an armed robbery of a restaurant," the report said.
President Clinton yesterday urged Congress to renew the law giving the FBI three business days to conduct background checks. The seven-month-old "instant check" system has already blocked about 100,000 prohibited purchases from going through, he said in a White House ceremony.
The president also announced that the federal government will spend $15 million in and around public housing areas to buy guns from residents, a move to get more firearms off the streets. The program will provide local police agencies up to $500,000 each to buy guns, which will be destroyed, for a "suggested price" of $50.
Clinton said Americans under 15 are nine times more likely to die by accidental shooting than children in the 25 other industrialized nations combined. "Every gun turned in through a buyback program means potentially one less tragedy," he said.