As gun sales surge during the coronavirus pandemic, the Justice Department is asking Congress for more enforcement resources — including to confiscate guns from people who shouldn’t legally be able to own them.
In recent outreach to Capitol Hill, DOJ made two requests related to the spike in gun purchases, according to two sources with knowledge of those asks. First, the department asked for funding to help the FBI hire more staff to keep up with the growing number of background checks and appeal requests going through the National Instant Criminal Background Check System. The bureau runs that system, which handles background checks on millions of gun buyers every year.
“The top priorities for the Department of Justice are to protect the safety and security of the American people and to ensure that Americans are not deprived of their constitutional rights,” said Stephen Boyd, head of the department’s Office of Legislative Affairs, in a statement. “Increased funding for NICS and ATF at this time is important to achieving those goals.”
The department also asked for more resources and personnel for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives to deal with firearm retrievals and other field work related to delayed denials, according to the two sources. The term “delayed denials” refers to situations in which people buy weapons and take them home before the NICS system can flag those buyers as ineligible to own guns.
Many background checks take just minutes. But some can take much longer. And if a background check is still underway and unresolved after three days, the gun buyer can take the weapon home. That’s when things can get complicated; if the NICS system concludes that someone has taken a weapon home who shouldn’t have been able to, then agents from ATF have to go retrieve it.
The request from the Justice Department indicates it’s preparing for a growing number of such retrievals as gun sales go up. House Democrats’ most recent legislative proposal responding to the pandemic did not include language granting the department’s requests.
The FBI ran more than 2.9 million background checks in April 2020, the most April background checks since 1999. And in March, it ran a whopping 3.7 million background checks — the most in any month since November 1998, when the FBI launched the NICS program, according to its website.
A number of factors can make someone ineligible for gun ownership, including being under indictment, having been convicted of a crime that brought more than a year of prison time, having been convicted of misdemeanor domestic violence, and having been involuntarily committed for mental health treatment. But the three-day rule means several thousand people in the banned categories still buy guns each year.
In 2018, the FBI referred more than 4,000 background-check denials to ATF for possible retrieval, according to an NICS operations report. And in 2017, according to the same report, at least 4,800 gun purchases went through that shouldn’t have. Of those, more than 1,000 went to people with misdemeanor domestic violence convictions. And 500 people who were fugitives from justice also successfully bought guns that year.
Some people who slip through the background check process have committed heinous crimes, including white supremacist Dylann Roof, who murdered nine African American parishioners at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C. Roof bought a gun after the three-day background-check waiting period ended, and the FBI learned too late that its system should have blocked him from doing so.
Meanwhile, the workers handling NICS background checks have long been overburdened, as The Trace, a nonprofit website funded by Everytown for Gun Safety, has detailed.
“We were under-resourced before this,” said one Justice Department official familiar with the program. “You can only imagine how bad the problem is now.”
The New York Times estimates that Americans bought about 2 million guns this March, as panic about the virus flared. On March 21, according to the BBC, the FBI ran more background checks than it ever has before in a single day: 210,000. And the Department of Homeland Security included gun stores on its list of essential businesses, recommending state governments let them stay open during the pandemic.