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Looming across-the-board federal spending cuts threaten to weaken the national criminal background check system for gun purchases, federal officials warn, even as lawmakers work to draft compromise legislation to expand and improve the background check system.
The FBI and the Justice Department warned that the cuts would be detrimental to the effort to curb gun violence and could put more Americans in danger in separate letters to Appropriations Chairwoman Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., this month.
Under the cuts, the FBI would be forced to furlough or freeze the hiring of 2,285 employees, causing a loss of work that would be felt throughout the agency, Robert Mueller, director of the FBI, wrote.
"Critical civil services - including the timely completion of checks by the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) of persons seeking to purchase firearms - would also be affected," Mueller wrote. Under law, background checks must be completed within three business days of the purchase of a firearm. These checks take seconds in most cases, but if they exceed the three-day limit, the gun can be sold without a "final NICS determination."
"Delays in processing and adjudicating NICS requests increases the risk of firearms being transferred to a convicted felon or other prohibited person," Mueller wrote.
The letter noted that if more guns end up in the hands of those who should not legally have them as a result of these delays, it would increase the danger to the public and law enforcement "when the NICS workload is expanding."
Attorney General Eric Holder wrote in his letter to Mikulski that under the sequester, $60 million would be cut from the ATF, forcing the reduction of "criminal investigations, firearms and explosives industry inspections, firearms and explosives applications and permits processing, and firearms tracing."
"These reductions make no sense considering our emphasis on fighting gun violence, and they would thwart the president's plan (and the nation's call) to protect our children and our communities from gun violence," he wrote.
Third Way, a left-leaning think-tank, noted in a memo in November 2011 that the lack of funding could lead to NICS shutting down for nine hours on Saturdays or Sundays, inconveniencing legal gun purchasers.
The $85 billion in across-the-board spending cuts, known as sequestration, will go into effect March 1 if Congress fails to pass an alternative plan to save the same amount of money. The Senate is likely to vote next week on a temporary plan to buy more time while a permanent solution is negotiated, but House Republicans have already raised objections to the Senate approach.
Nearly all the gun bills introduced in the House and the Senate in response to last year's Newtown, Conn., tragedy and other mass shootings would expand or increase the work the Department of Justice would do on firearms.
A bipartisan group of senators is working on a bill that would expand background checks to gun shows and certain private purchases. There is also bipartisan support for House and Senate bills that would make trafficking in firearms a federal crime and strengthen the penalties for those who purchase guns for people prohibited from owning them. Funding problems could hamper any agreement.
The NICS Improvement Amendments Act of 2007 created a program for states to update the criminal and mental health records in the NICS system. The law was never funded at the level authorized by Congress, and several states did not have the resources to add the records on their own, according to an analysis by Mayors Against Illegal Guns.
Shams Tarek, communication director for Rep. Carolyn McCarthy, D-NY, said she was concerned how the cuts would impact NICS as well as the law enforcement community as a whole.
"We're certainly very concerned about how cuts to ATF and Justice would affect gun safety and law enforcement measures, including not just the administration of NICS but also local law enforcement and first responder assistance," Tarek said.