Tuesday, Jan. 15, 2013 | 2 a.m.
WASHINGTON — Nearly 80,000 Americans were denied guns in 2010, according to Justice Department data, because they lied or provided inaccurate information about their criminal histories on background-check forms. Yet just 44 of those people were charged with a crime.
The staggeringly low number of prosecutions for people who “lie and try,” as it is called by law enforcement officials, is being studied by the Obama administration as it considers measures to curb gun violence after the Connecticut elementary school shootings in December.
A task force headed by Vice President Joe Biden is expected to offer proposals to President Barack Obama as early as today. It is looking at a wide range of issues linked to gun crimes, including violence in video games and movies, and gaps in mental health treatment and background checks.
The most contentious initiatives, such as reviving a ban on assault weapons, would require congressional approval and have drawn fierce opposition from gun rights groups and Republican lawmakers, making passage a long shot.
“I would say that the likelihood is that they are not going to be able to get an assault weapons ban through this Congress,” David Keene, the president of the National Rifle Association, said Sunday on the CNN program “State of the Union.”
In the face of those difficulties, the White House has said it is looking for actions it can take without congressional approval. Increasing the number of prosecutions for lying on background-check forms is an effort that the administration can undertake largely on its own, in part by pressing federal prosecutors to pursue such cases. It also is one measure that both sides of the gun-control debate have agreed upon.
It is a felony to deliberately provide false information in an effort to buy a gun, and studies financed by the Justice Department show that people who do so are more likely than the average person to commit violent crimes after they are denied a firearm purchase.
At a meeting Biden held with gun control advocates last week, the group Mayors Against Illegal Guns recommended to the administration that it should instruct the Justice Department to investigate those who are denied guns and who have a history that suggests they might commit violence.
In a memorandum provided to the administration, the group said that “armed career criminals who have at least three prior violent felonies and/or serious drug offenses and would qualify for a mandatory sentence of 7-15 years” should be prosecuted if they lie on background-check forms. The group said that it provided a similar recommendation to the Obama administration in 2009.
The memorandum said that more than 800 mayors in the United States “support more aggressive prosecution of those who fail background checks.”
“This is not like looking for a needle in a haystack — these are people you know are too violent to buy a gun,” John Feinblatt, an official with the mayors’ group who met with Biden, said in a telephone interview. “Once they have been rejected, they go online or to a private seller or a gun show and get a gun.”
The low number of prosecutions in 2010, the most recent year for which data are available, is consistent with other years. Prosecuting these cases has proved challenging because to get a conviction “you have to prove that the person knew they were lying when they tried to purchase the firearm,” said a senior Justice Department official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss matters related to gun control before Biden’s proposals are announced.
A conviction usually carries a maximum sentence of just six months, the official said, adding that with a limited number of federal prosecutors, the government has to prioritize its use of resources.
Although gun control advocates have been more vocal about the issue, the National Rifle Association also supports similar action, arguing that the administration should enforce the gun laws that already exist before making new ones.
“It has been a longstanding frustration of the National Rifle Association that there’s no follow-through or follow-up on these cases and criminals, and those who shouldn’t be trying to buy guns have been getting away scot-free,” said Andrew Arulanandam, an NRA spokesman.
Arulanandam said that the NRA has “for decades been trying to get prior administrations — Republicans and Democrats — to take action on the matter, but there seems to be no will by the Justice Department to enforce existing gun laws.”
Current and former law enforcement officials have said in interviews that few of these cases are brought because they get far less attention than cases involving white-collar fraud or terrorism.
Law enforcement experts note that more prosecutions for background-check failures probably would not have prevented the Newtown school massacre because the gunman in that case used firearms purchased legally by his mother.
Of those denied a gun because of a failed background check in 2010, 47 percent had been previously convicted of a felony or faced a felony charge, and 19 percent were fugitives, according to a recent study financed by the Justice Department.
Another study backed by the Justice Department found that people who are denied the right to buy a firearm are much more likely than the average person to commit a violent crime even after being denied. The study, released in 2008, revealed that people who are denied a gun are 28 percent more likely to be arrested in the five years after they failed their background check compared with the previous five years.
While the federal government has oversight over purchases from registered firearm dealers, it does not require background checks for the millions of firearms sold each year at gun shows and by individuals — loopholes that gun control advocates hope the administration will work to close.
In 2012, a Pittsburgh man who had been denied a weapon because he had been committed to a psychiatric hospital shot seven people, killing one, with handguns he had purchased from a private seller.
Two years earlier, a man who had been denied a gun opened fire on two police officers at a checkpoint outside the Pentagon with a weapon that had been purchased at a gun show. The officers, who were wounded, returned fire, killing the shooter.
Under federal law, anyone who tries to purchase a firearm from a licensed dealer must fill out a form about his or her criminal history. If a person checks yes to any of the questions — including whether he or she has been convicted of a felony or is the subject of a restraining order — the gun dealer cannot legally sell the person a weapon.
But if the person checks no to all the questions, the dealer is required to call a screener who has the name checked against federal databases run by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Typically, the FBI can determine someone’s status within minutes, and the dealer can inform the buyer whether the person can purchase the firearm.
When people are denied, they are free to leave the store. The local police, however, are not informed that a prohibited buyer has tried to purchase a weapon.
The FBI has a process that allows people “who have been wrongfully denied a firearm transfer” to appeal through its website. According to the website, those who are denied are encouraged to provide copies of their fingerprints.
With such a low number of prosecutions, Arulanandam of the NRA said there is no deterrent for criminals who take their chances by trying to buy a weapon from a gun dealer.
“If the Justice Department started prosecuting these people, it will send a message that if you are disqualified we are sending you to jail,” he said. “It’s a pretty good message to send to criminals.”