Gun Control and Terrorism:

FBI Could Better Manage Firearm-Related Background Checks Involving Terrorist Watch List Records

GAO-05-127: Published: Jan 19, 2005. Publicly Released: Mar 8, 2005.

Additional Materials:

Contact:

Laurie E. Ekstrand
(202) 512-2758
contact@gao.gov

 

Office of Public Affairs
(202) 512-4800
youngc1@gao.gov

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.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In a January 2005 report (Gun Control and Terrorism: FBI Could Better Manage Firearm-Related Background Checks Involving Terrorist Watch List Records, GAO-05-127), we identified a number of potential problems in the procedures that the FBI and applicable state agencies follow when a potential gun purchaser is identified as a valid match with a terrorist watch list record. While being on the watch list does not, in itself, disqualify an applicant from purchasing a gun, it is important that the maximum amount of allowable information from firearm-related background checks be consistently shared with counterterrorism officials. However, our work revealed that federal and state procedures for handling these background checks do not clearly address the specific types of information that can or should be routinely provided to counterterrorism officials or the sources from which such information can be obtained. We recommended that the Attorney General clarify procedures to ensure that the maximum amount of allowable information from firearm-related background checks involving terrorist watch list records is consistently shared with counterterrorism officials. This recommendation has been adopted; the FBI revised its standard operating procedures to explicitly permit the additional information to be shared.

    Recommendation: Proper management of NICS transactions with valid matches to terrorist watch list records is important. Thus, the Attorney General should clarify procedures to ensure that the maximum amount of allowable information from these background checks is consistently shared with counterterrorism officials.

    Agency Affected: Department of Justice: Office of the Attorney General

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In a January 2005 report (Gun Control and Terrorism: FBI Could Better Manage Firearm-Related Background Checks Involving Terrorist Watch List Records, GAO-05-127), we identified a number of potential problems in the FBI's oversight of the states' handling of firearm-related background checks involving terrorist watch list records. Specifically, we found that the FBI did not have aggregate data on the number of these transactions that had been approved or denied by state agencies to date. Also, the FBI had not assessed the extent to which the states had implemented and followed applicable procedures for handling terrorism-related firearm transactions. Further, we found that more frequent FBI oversight or centralized management of these transactions would help address other types of issues we identified--such as several states' delays in implementing procedures and one state's mishandling of a terrorism-related background check. We recommended that the Attorney General either strengthen the FBI's oversight of state agencies or have the FBI centrally manage all firearm-related background checks involving valid matches with terrorist watch list records. This recommendation has been adopted: the FBI has assumed responsibility for processing all NICS firearm related transactions involving terrorists.

    Recommendation: Proper management of NICS transactions with valid matches to terrorist watch list records is important. Thus, the Attorney General should either implement more frequent monitoring by the FBI of applicable state agencies or have the FBI centrally manage all terrorism-related NICS background checks.

    Agency Affected: Department of Justice: Office of the Attorney General

 

Explore the full database of GAO's Open Recommendations »

Nov 18, 2014

Nov 13, 2014

Oct 10, 2014

Sep 30, 2014

Sep 22, 2014

Jul 9, 2014

May 14, 2014

Apr 30, 2014

Mar 26, 2014

Looking for more? Browse all our products here