Justice officials criticize Washington Post for gun check story
June 26, 1999
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Furious Justice Department and FBI officials late Friday denounced a Washington Post report which blamed FBI "bungling" for delays in background checks that allowed about 1,700 convicted felons to buy guns since the "instant" check system went into effect last November.
Under the Instant Check system, when the FBI is unable to complete the required background checks on firearms purchasers within three business days, gun dealers are allowed to sell the weapons.
If it is later determined that the buyers were prohibited from legal purchases, the FBI issues "gun retrieval notices" which allow ATF agents to attempt to track down the buyers on felony firearms possession charges.
The Post account cited "flaws" in the FBI Instant Check system and "bungled federal background checks" which allowed felons to purchase weapons.
Editors of The Post stand by their report.
"Nowhere have they pointed to a single factual error," said Ashley Halsey, the Post's Maryland editor who defended the story by staff writer Craig Whitlock.
Freeh cites lengthy search process
FBI Director Louis Freeh issued a statement saying that "The FBI has neither erred in its responsibilities nor failed to carry out its obligations under the NICS (National Instant Check System program).
Freeh blamed the lack of readily accessible state court records for the delays.
"If a prospective purchaser has a criminal record indicating an arrest, but no disposition from the court of record on that arrest is noted, then extraordinary steps are taken," Freeh's statement said.
The FBI response described the time-consuming process that results when FBI agents must undertake manual record searches.
"It is important to reiterate that the FBI's goal for the NICS program is to prevent even one firearm from falling into the wrong hands," Freeh's statement said.
A 'spin' problem?
The government's top law enforcement officials are especially sensitive after losing a bruising battle this month to NRA-backed forces when lawmakers voted to shorten the period allowed for checks at gunshows. The vote led to the defeat of all gun-control efforts in the House.
Halsey said editors of The Post had spoken at length with Deputy Attorney General Eric Holder, who complained.
"It doesn't contain the spin they wanted," Halsey told CNN.
"This isn't a story about who's to blame. This is a story about the fact that 1,700 guns are in the hands of people who shouldn't have them," Halsey said.
Senior law enforcement officials said the problem of gun purchases by felons and other ineligible people after inconclusive initial checks reinforces the argument against shortening the three-day period for background checks.
Correspondent Terry Frieden at the Justice Department contributed to this report.
Democratic leader sees hope for gun control compromise
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