Gun Control and Terrorism: FBI Could Better Manage Firearm-Related Background Checks Involving Terrorist Watch List Records: GAO-05-127

Ekstrand, Laurie E.
January 2005
GAO Reports;1/19/2005, p1
Government Document
Membership in a terrorist organization does not prohibit a person from owning a gun under current law. Thus, during presale screening of prospective firearms purchasers, the National Instant Criminal Background Check System historically did not utilize terrorist watch list records. However, for homeland security and other purposes, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and applicable state agencies began receiving notices (effective February 3, 2004) when such screening involved watch lists records. GAO determined (1) how many checks have resulted in valid matches with terrorist watch list records, (2) procedures for providing federal counterterrorism officials relevant information from valid-match background checks, and (3) the extent to which the FBI monitors or audits the states' handling of such checks. During the period GAO reviewed--February 3 through June 30, 2004--a total of 44 firearm-related background checks handled by the FBI and applicable state agencies resulted in valid matches with terrorist watch list records. Of this total, 35 transactions were allowed to proceed because the background checks found no prohibiting information, such as felony convictions, illegal immigrant status, or other disqualifying factors. Federal and state procedures--developed and disseminated under the Department of Justice's direction--do not address the specific types of information from valid-match background checks that can or should be provided to federal counterterrorism officials or the sources from which such information can be obtained. Justice officials told GAO that information from the background check system is not to be used for general law enforcement purposes but can be shared with law enforcement agents or other government agencies in the legitimate pursuit of establishing a match between the prospective gun buyer and a terrorist watch list record and in the search for information that could prohibit the firearm transfer. Most state agency personnel GAO contacted were not aware of any restrictions or limitations on providing valid-match information to counterterrorism officials. FBI counterterrorism officials told GAO that routinely receiving all available personal identifying information and other details from valid-match background checks could be useful in conducting investigations. As part of routine audits the FBI conducts every 3 years, the Bureau plans to assess the states' handling of firearm-related background checks involving terrorist watch list records. However, given that these background checks involve known or suspected terrorists who could pose homeland security risks, more frequent FBI oversight or centralized management would help ensure that suspected terrorists who have disqualifying factors do not obtain firearms in violation of the law. The Attorney General and the FBI ultimately are responsible for managing the background check system, although they have yet to assess the states' compliance with applicable procedures for handling terrorism-related checks. Also, more frequent FBI oversight or centralized management would help address other types of issues GAO identified--such as several states' delays in implementing procedures and one state's mishandling of a terrorism-related background check.


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