WASHINGTON — "There are 9,000 people in 2010 that failed a background check who are felons on the run, and none of them were prosecuted."
— Sen. Lindsey Graham, R, S.C., interviewed on CNN's "State of the Union," March 31, 2013
Earlier this year, we detailed some of the interesting statistics concerning the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS), which is done through either the FBI or state agencies.
In 2010, the FBI referred about 76,000 denials of firearms to an arm of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), but after a review 90 percent were not deemed worthy of further investigation while another 4 percent turned out to be incorrect denials. But then even of the relatively small percentage of cases referred to ATF field offices, another quarter turned out to be a case of mistaken denial and most of the rest had no prosecutorial merit.
In the end, 62 cases were referred for prosecution, but most were declined by prosecutors or dismissed by the court. Out of the original 76,000 denials, there emerge just 13 guilty pleas.
Opponents of new gun control laws, such as Graham, have seized on those statistics to argue that "the current system we have that's clearly broken" and that it would be better to fix it before expanding background checks.
To some extent, that's a matter of opinion. But it is worth exploring why so few denials end up being prosecuted — and to examine Graham's factual claim that "none" of the "felons on the run" were prosecuted. (The FBI figures actually show nearly 14,000 fugitives were denied gun permits in 2010, not 9,000 as Graham said, but that's a minor matter.)
The key purpose of the background checks in the Brady law is to prevent certain individuals — particularly those with criminal records — from easily buying guns. But from its inception, few people have been prosecuted for lying on the application form. A 2000 General Accounting Office report and a 2004 Justice Department Inspector General report disclosed a lack of clear guidelines for prosecution but also indicated that these are simply hard cases to make.