WASHINGTON (USA TODAY)— The nation's gun enforcement agency lacks the capacity to adequately track the outcomes of thousands of investigations involving improperly purchased firearms, a government review concluded.
Although the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives considers the cases a "top priority,'' the agency "does not have readily available data to track and monitor the timeliness'' of inquiries involving suspects who were allowed to buy guns after background checks initially failed to flag the buyers as ineligible because of past criminal records, mental illness or other prohibited conditions, the Government Accountability Office found.
At the same time, the GAO found that ATF's staffing is at its lowest level in nearly a decade. There are 2,399 ATF special agents — the fewest since 2005. Personnel concerns extend to a growing number of veteran agents who are near or now eligible for retirement, according to the report.
In nearly three years, 23 of the 25 agents who direct the operations of individual field divisions scattered across the country will be eligible for retirement. Already 26% of all agents qualify for retirement and an additional 20% will become eligible through 2018.
"ATF is facing a reduction in its number of special agents, who according to management officials, are critical to carrying out its mission of reducing violent crime,'' the GAO report stated.
The report attributed some of the declining staffing levels to a four-year hiring freeze and stagnant funding, which "did not keep pace with the cost of employee salaries and benefits.''
In 2011, for example, the agency lost 78 agents to attrition and hired just 23. In the following year, 61 agents left the bureau, while 14 were hired.
In an attempt to stop deeper cuts to the force, the ATF hired 96 agents in FY 2014, the first time in four years that the bureau was able to hire more agents than had left the agency.
In its review of the ATF's so-called "delayed-denial'' investigations, the GAO stated that about 12% of investigations involve suspects whose ineligibility is not determined until after the transaction is initially processed through the national background check system.
Under federal law, a licensed dealer may sell a gun to a person if after three days the system has not alerted the dealer that the prospective buyer is prohibited.
"The risk of firearms-related violent crime by these individuals increases if ATF does not investigate them in a timely manner and resolve unlawful possession of the firearm,'' the report stated.
In 2005, the ATF adopted a standard urging agents to initiate delayed denial investigation within a week of receiving information from the FBI about the transactions. But the GAO found that the bureau's database "does not have the capability to track when an investigation is initiated.'' And because of the database limitations, ATF officials are unable to "systematically monitor the outcomes of delayed denial investigation,'' which include firearm seizures from prohibited buyers.