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Felons slip through gun background checks
By Dan Olson
Minnesota Public Radio
January 16, 2002
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A new study says background checks are failing to prevent thousands of felons from buying guns. The Washington D.C.-based Americans for Gun Safety says in Minnesota the past two-and-a-half years, nearly 200 felons and others prohibited from owning guns passed background checks. Minnesota law enforcement officials say followup background checks result in many of the illegally-procured guns being turned over to authorities.

gun sales
A new study says background checks for gun purchases are full of loopholes, mainly because states are not doing a good job of record-keeping.
(MPR file photo)

Laws prohibit convicted felons, illegal aliens, drug addicts, people with serious mental disorders, and those dishonorably discharged from the military from buying or owning a firearm. A web of federal, state and local laws require background checks, waiting periods and permits for most firearm purchases.

Even so, Department of Justice statistics show thousands of people who shouldn't have guns are slipping through the system, according to Jim Kessler, spokesman for Americans for Gun Safety.

"Nationwide about 10,000 criminals that we know of were able to get a gun because the background check was not completed in time," says Kessler. "In Minnesota, 199 criminals got their guns."

Kessler says the federal law limiting gun purchases is backward. The law says people may buy a gun if there is no response to a background check in three days. Kessler says it should be the reverse - if there's no response to a background check, the sale should be denied.

Background checks on people wanting to buy firearms go through the Federal Bureau of Investigation's NICS program - the National Instant Criminal Background Check System.

At Joe's Sporting Goods on Dale St. in St. Paul, racks of outdoor clothing, shelves of camping gear and cases full of fishing tackle fill the store's basement and first floor. The firearms counter in back prominently displays shotguns and rifles, and customers can also buy handguns.

Co-owner Jim Rauscher says a handgun customer must first show a permit from the police department. Then Rauscher calls the local FBI office to start the background check.

"I'd say approximately 75 percent of them we get a response approved right away, and you would be able to take that gun, pay for it and take it out of the store," Rauscher says. "The other 25 percent of the time it goes on delayed status, where they need to do more of a background checking on the process. That can be anywhere from five minutes to three business days."

"The system isn't working because states have failed to do an adequate job of getting records...onto a computer tape that can be accessed when a background check is put through for gun buyers. "

- Jim Kessler, Americans for Gun Safety

If there's no response from federal officials after three days, Rauscher says he's allowed to sell the firearm to the customer.

American Gun Safety's Jim Kessler says states are responsible for the problem due to poor record-keeping.

"The system isn't working because states have failed to do an adequate job of getting records of people who've been convicted of crimes or people who have been institutionalized or people who have committed domestic violence crimes - getting those records onto a computer tape that can be accessed when a background check is put through for gun buyers," Kessler says.

Minnesota officials admit some people prohibited from owning guns sometimes evade detection. However, Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension superintendent Michael Campion says there are followup background checks. He says when state officials find a case where a person was mistakenly allowed to buy a gun, they ask the federal Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms to confiscate the weapon.

"The vast majority of those people relinquish their firearms," Campion says. "If, in fact, that's the source of that 199 figure, that doesn't mean there's 199 (people) in Minnesota running around with a firearm that shouldn't have one."

The American Gun Safety Foundation's look at federal numbers the past 30 months shows Ohio and Alabama have the highest number of prohibited buyers who bought guns - more than 700 each - followed by Louisiana, Missouri, Michigan and Kentucky - with from 300 to 400 buyers. In Wisconsin, the group says there were 216 prohibited buyers who bought guns during that period.

The BCA's Michael Campion says officials checked the backgrounds of 50,000 buyers during the time surveyed by the gun safety group, so there's a risk that people who shouldn't own guns do purchase them. However, Campion says Minnesota's $27 million investment in Crimnet, a new statewide computerized criminal data sharing system, reduces the risk.

"I think Minnesota is way ahead of an awful lot of other states in dealing with the completeness of records, and this gun issue is yet another illustration of the importance of Crimnet," Campion says.

Background checks work with reputable gun retailers who don't want to risk losing their firearms license. However, by one estimate nearly half of this country's guns are bought and sold at gun shows or on the Internet, where sellers and buyers often ignore firearms laws.

More Information
  • Americans for Gun Safety Read the full report, Broken Records
  • Citizens for a Safer Minnesota