Thousands of people legally ineligible to buy firearms have been able to buy guns anyway, and few have been prosecuted by the Justice Department for the unlawful purchases, according to a federal report released yesterday.

Justice Department Inspector General Glenn A. Fine identified more than 7,000 cases in 2002 and 2003 in which a person prohibited from buying a gun under federal firearms restrictions was able to do so. The report also found that less than 1 percent of the 120,000 people who unlawfully tried to buy guns during those years were prosecuted for the crime.

The report found that delays in tracking down unlawful purchasers to retrieve the guns "increase the risk that prohibited persons may use the illegally obtained firearm to harm others or otherwise commit a crime," and points to one case in which one of the illegal guns was fired at another person's car.

The findings follow a report released last week by Fine's office concluding that the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) is so far behind on inspections of federally licensed gun dealers that, at the current pace, it would take 22 years to visit them all. The ATF, which was transferred in 2003 from the Treasury Department to Justice, has been the focus of criticism from gun-control advocates who argue that the agency is lax in its oversight of federal gun regulations.

In a written response to Fine's findings, ATF Director Carl J. Truscott said that "there is a need to increase resources dedicated to firearms investigations" and that many of the inspector general's recommendations would be addressed in the agency's 2006 budget request.

"We strongly believe that one of the principal activities of successful firearms enforcement efforts is the effective referral of firearms denials," Truscott wrote. "As such, ATF continues to assess our practices and procedures to ensure that we are constantly improving this complex process."

Under the 1993 Brady gun-control act, the FBI has three days to conduct a computerized background check to ensure that customers are not prohibited from buying a firearm because they have been convicted of certain crimes or belong to other specified categories. If the check turns up no information in that time, however, the purchase can be completed. It is up to the ATF to track down those later found to have evaded detection.

In 2002 and 2003, the report found, 7,030 ineligible people bought weapons under this system. The report also found that "although the ATF eventually has been able to retrieve guns transferred to these prohibited persons in almost all cases, the retrievals have not always been timely."

Out of 188 cases examined by Fine, for example, 40 percent were not resolved within a month and 15 percent took four months to a year to be resolved.

In its report last week, Fine's office said that only about 4.5 percent of the nation's 104,000 licensed gun dealers are inspected each year by the ATF. That report also found that the ATF rarely revokes firearms licenses.