Federal law enforcement authorities have filed paperwork to initiate the seizure of thousands of firearms acquired in transactions that should have been prohibited.

The FBI issued more than 4,000 requests in the past year to agents from the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco Firearms and Explosives (ATF) in order to retrieve guns which have been purchased by prohibited buyers. Laws prevent these buyers from owning a firearm due to criminal records, mental health issues, or other problems which can disqualify and individual.

This is the largest such request in over a decade, revealing a breakdown in the background check system. The FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) vets millions of gun purchase transactions every year. But the thousands of gun seizure requests highlight persistent problems in a system where analysts must complete background checks within three days of the proposed purchase. If the background check is not complete within the 72-hour time limit, federal law allows the sale to go forward.

ATF agents are then asked to retrieve the guns if the FBI later discovers these sales should have been forbidden. Given that multiple firearms can be purchased in a single transaction, the actual number of firearms which should have been denied at the point of sale will be larger because this count only represents prohibited transactions (not the number of firearms purchased within a prohibited transaction).

This statistic is further worrisome in the light of revelations that a breakdown in the reporting system allowed the Texas church shooting suspect, Air Force veteran Devin Kelley, to acquire firearms despite his troubling status that should have prevented any sales to him.

Air Force officials have acknowledged that the service failed to transmit a record of Kelley’s court martial for domestic assault to the FBI that would have made him ineligible for the 2016 purchase of the rifle. And on Tuesday, the Air Force said a preliminary review concluded that the reporting error was part of a broader problem within the service, indicating that “similar reporting lapses occurred at other locations” within the Air Force.*

“These are people who shouldn’t have weapons in the first place, and it just takes one to do something that could have tragic consequences,” said David Chipman, a former ATF official who helped oversee the firearm retrieval program. “You don’t want ATF to stand for ‘after the fact.’”
Many in Texas would say that it already does.

The Kelley case highlights longstanding problems with government databases that are rife with incomplete or inadequate record submissions. NICS continues to depend on those databases that largely rely on voluntary record submissions from law enforcement agencies, the military and mental health authorities to guard against unauthorized firearm purchases.

Now, in addition to the public safety risks some of these individuals present, the ATF agents tasked with retrieving the banned weapons from unauthorized gun owners are exposed to potentially dangerous confrontations.

It has not been immediately clear how many gun seizure requests agents successfully executed last year or how many weapons were ultimately recovered.

*An Air Force official has confirmed the details in the police report, including that Kelley was a danger to himself and others, faced military criminal charges, had been sneaking firearms onto Holloman Air Force Base and had made threats toward his chain of command. The official also confirmed the description from the person at the facility that Kelley “suffered from mental disorders.”

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