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Unenforced gun laws

BOSTON'S RECENT shootings are a reminder that gun violence must be fought at many levels, including by the federal government. But two recent reports found that existing federal laws are not being thoroughly enforced.

Gun laws are designed to stop people who are legally banned from buying firearms, such as convicted felons, domestic abusers, drug addicts, and others. In reality, the system is frayed and guns fall into the wrong hands.

Issued last month by the inspector general of the Justice Department, the reports focused on two problems: inadequate inspection of gun dealers and flaws in checking gun buyers' backgrounds.

Inspections help ensure that gun sellers abide by federal laws. But one report calls the inspections conducted by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives "infrequent and of inconsistent quality" and says follow-ups and penalties have been sporadic.

A review of 100 cases found 23 percent with no record of any inspection. Another 22 percent were inspected only at the time they applied for a license, sometimes just by phone. And in 2002, there were only 4,581 compliance inspections covering a sliver of the nation's 104,000 dealers and others with licenses. The report says that at this rate, it would take the ATF some 22 years to inspect all license holders.

The firearms bureau lacks needed funding and staff. But the report points to worthwhile improvements that could still be undertaken, such as streamlining inspections, redeploying staff, and updating the inspection tracking system.

When it comes to background checks of gun buyers, challenges exist at ATF and the FBI, which runs the national instant criminal background check system. Prospective gun buyers must wait three days while the FBI runs checks. But after this the buyer gets the gun whether or not the check is complete. The result: In 2002 and 2003, the FBI alerted ATF about 7,000 cases of buyers who got guns even though they were not legally allowed to do so.

ATF's job is to retrieve these guns. But an analysis of 188 cases showed that delays in recovering guns occurred a third of the time and ranged from two months to over a year in one case.

The report cited a troubling example. In August 2002, ATF knew about a man who had gotten a gun despite a felony conviction for vehicular manslaughter. An ATF agent did not visit the man until June 2003, when he found that the man also had five other guns. The delay was attributed to the agent's caseload. The resolution was to transfer ownership of all the guns to the buyer's daughter.

This example makes questions about the need for reform more serious. But even without reform, Attorney General John Ashcroft should be investing the resources needed to make existing federal gun laws more effective. 

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