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William Barr uses misleading data on gun background checks in testimony to Congress

The attorney general badly understated the size of a loophole that helped the Charleston church shooter buy his gun.

Attorney General William Barr testifies about the Justice Department's fiscal year 2020 budget request before a House Appropriations subcommittee on April 09, 2019. CREDIT: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Attorney General William Barr testifies about the Justice Department's fiscal year 2020 budget request before a House Appropriations subcommittee on April 09, 2019. CREDIT: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Attorney General William Barr gave misleading data on gun background checks during his testimony before a House Appropriations subcommittee on Tuesday, understating the size of a loophole that helped the Charleston church shooter buy his gun.

The exchange happened when Appropriations Committee Chair Nita Lowey (D-NY) asked Barr whether the Federal Bureau of Investigation needs more time to complete gun background checks. Federal law allows a gun dealer to proceed with a sale if the buyer’s background check takes longer than three days, though many dealers choose not to.

If the dealer does proceed with the sale and the FBI later determines that the buyer is legally prohibited from owning a gun, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives retrieves the weapon.

“The data that I have heard is that there are about 6,000 of these delayed responses where these default sales occur after the expiration of the three days,” Barr told Lowey during a hearing of the Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related Agencies. “When you go back and look at those 6,000, approximately 2,000 of those, about a third, are people that would have flunked the background check. And there, ATF goes out and gets the weapon. Retrieves the weapon.”

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Barr was off by a factor of three. The FBI referred at least 6,004 delayed gun background check denials to ATF for retrieval in 2017, according to an agency report.

That number included 4,864 cases where the FBI and ATF determined that the gun dealer definitely made the sale plus 1,140 additional cases the agencies couldn’t determine if the sale went through. It does not include cases where the FBI determines that a buyer is prohibited after the three-business-day window, but the dealer never sold the gun.

The FBI does not track the total number of gun background checks that result in a denial after three business days.

“Statistics are not available to determine how many denials occurred after the third business day,” the agency told ThinkProgress in a statement earlier this year.

Kyleanne Hunter, vice president for programs at the gun safety group Brady, called Barr’s comments “alarming.”

“We’re concerned that AG Barr made a definitive statement on not extending the period of time that the FBI has to finish background checks, while also misrepresenting, knowingly or unknowingly, the facts about gun sales in our country,” Hunter told ThinkProgress in a statement. “We know the Attorney General is a busy man, but hopefully he’ll find the time to familiarize himself with how guns fall into dangerous hands in the country he swore to protect.”

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The Justice Department did not return multiple requests for comment Tuesday. Lowey’s office referred ThinkProgress to a spokesperson for the House Oversight Committee, who did not respond.

The FBI failed to complete 310,232 background checks within three business days in 2017, according to data it shared with ThinkProgress last year — 3.59% of all federal background checks. That numbers went down slightly in 2018 to 276,000, or 3.35% of all checks. The dip reversed an upward trend dating back to at least 2014, the earliest year for which data is available.

The House passed legislation earlier this year that would extend that deadline to 10 business days and put other checks in place. The bill is pending in the Senate, where it’s expected to die in committee.