By Mary Orndorff Troyan
Gannett Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON - Federal officials should be more aggressive in prosecuting people who try to buy guns but fail to pass a background check, Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said Wednesday.
It is a crime to lie about your criminal or mental health history when trying to purchase a gun. Last year, 80,000 people failed a background check while trying to buy a gun, but only 44 were prosecuted for the attempt.
"I would argue that with this level of prosecution, the current law is not much of a deterrent," Graham, an outspoken opponent of new gun control laws, said at a Capitol Hill news conference.
Graham agreed that not all 80,000 people who failed a background check last year committed a crime. Some of those who didn't pass were the victims of paperwork errors, and some were rejected after properly indicating their criminal history.
"But more than 44 of them probably did it illegally," Graham said.
A spokesman for the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence said the 80,000 cases are evidence of guns laws effectively preventing 80,000 people from obtaining guns that shouldn't have them.
"While it would be best if all violations were fully enforced, it is nonsense to suggest that a failure to fully prosecute people who try and fail to buy guns shows that the background check system is not working, when background checks did exactly what they are supposed to do - keep guns out of the hands of dangerous people," said Jonathan Lowry, director of the Legal Action Project with the Brady Center.
Graham also highlighted a recent South Carolina case in which Alice Boland, who has a documented history of mental illness, was able to buy a gun. Boland, who threatened to shoot President George W. Bush in 2005, tried unsuccessfully to shoot people at Ashley Hall, a private college in Charleston, S.C., on Feb. 4.
"She passed a background check to buy a weapon legally and to me that is Exhibit A of a broken system," Graham said.
Mayors Against Illegal Guns lists South Carolina among states that do the poorest job sharing mental health records with the national background-check database.
It reported that the state submitted about three dozen such records in 2011. South Carolina would have had to submit an additional 38,000 records to be considered on par with states that share their data more freely.
Boland was charged in federal court, not state court, for the threat against Bush. It's not clear whether that explains how she passed a background check to buy a gun.
"I would like to find out how to make sure a federal court verdict is captured by the system and what (to) do with a state court verdict (so it) would be captured by the system," Graham said.
South Carolina conducted more than 308,000 background checks through the National Instant Criminal Background Check System last year, according to the FBI.
In January, President Barack Obama issued a presidential memo requiring federal agencies to make relevant data available to the background check system and improving incentives for states to share their information with the system.