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Justice Department slow to answer Congress on gun background checks

House Appropriations has asked Attorney General William Barr to clarify April testimony

The House Appropriations Committee has asked Attorney General William Barr to clarify testimony he gave Congress in April. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
The House Appropriations Committee has asked Attorney General William Barr to clarify testimony he gave Congress in April. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

House lawmakers are still waiting for Attorney General William Barr to answer written questions after he misstated key data about gun background checks during testimony in April.

The questions revolve around a controversial provision in federal law that lets gun dealers sell firearms before a background check is completed if that takes longer than three business days.

[Charleston mass murderer Dylann Roof got his gun because of background check gaps, internal report shows]

Here’s how the system works:

Gun dealers are required to do background checks on potential buyers to make sure they’re not prohibited from owning a gun under federal or state law. In most states, those checks are handled by the FBI.

When it does a background check, the bureau gives one of three immediate answers: yes, no or delay. If a delay lasts longer than three business days, the dealer can choose to sell the gun without a definitive answer from the FBI.

Meanwhile, the bureau keeps researching the background check. If it later finds out that the potential buyer is barred from owning a gun, officials contact the dealer to see if it sold the weapon. If so, federal agents will retrieve it.

After 90 days, federal law requires the FBI to stop researching a background check and purge it from its systems, even without any final determination.

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Barr misstated two numbers in his April 9 testimony: the number of sales without a completed background check after three business days and the number of those weapons that officials had to retrieve because the person ended up being prohibited.

“The data that I have heard is that there are about 6,000 of these delayed responses where these default sales occur after the expiration of the three days,” Barr told a House Appropriations subcommittee after the full committee chairwoman, New York Democrat Nita M. Lowey, asked whether the FBI needs more time to complete background checks.

“When you go back and look at those 6,000 [delayed sales], approximately 2,000 of those, about a third, are people that would have flunked the background check,” Barr added.

Those numbers are not accurate. The FBI was not able to complete 276,000 background checks within three business days last year. It does not track  how many customers whose background checks weren’t completed were still able to purchase guns. Dealers also do not notify the bureau when they sell a gun after the third business day.

The FBI does track how many delayed background checks result in a sale to someone who is prohibited from owning a gun. It refers those cases to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, which retrieves the weapons.

That happened at least 3,960 times in 2018 and at least 4,864 times in 2017, according to annual FBI reports — nearly twice the “approximately 2,000” figure that Barr quoted to Congress in April.

House Appropriations sent the Justice Department questions for the record after the hearing asking it to clarify Barr’s testimony, according to a committee spokesperson, but lawmakers are yet to receive an answer.

The Justice Department did not respond to requests for comment.

The House passed a bill in February that would lengthen the three-business-day window for background checks, but the Senate has not taken up the measure.

Meanwhile, a bipartisan group of senators is working with the White House on a potential deal for background check legislation after several high-profile mass shootings.

That deal remains elusive for the moment. President Donald Trump has suggested that House Democrats’ impeachment inquiry may have taken any hope of compromise off the table, but staff are still working on a deal.

It’s not clear whether changes in the three-business-day window would be part of any potential compromise legislation.

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