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Federal prosecutions for illegal gun purchases changed little from Bush to Obama

REUTERS/Gary Cameron | BDN
REUTERS/Gary Cameron | BDN
U.S Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, talks to reporters on Capitol Hill in Washington on April 11, 2013.
By Glenn Kessler, The Washington Post

WASHINGTON — “We should be focusing on violent criminals and that has not been the Obama Justice Department’s priority. In 2010, there were over 15,000 felons and fugitives who tried to illegally purchase firearms. Of those 15,000, the Obama Justice Department prosecuted just 44. Let me repeat those numbers because those numbers are staggering, 15,000, they only prosecuted 44.”

— Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Tex., on the Sean Hannity Show, April 10, 2013

We’ve written before about the disconnect between the number of people denied guns via a background check and the number of people prosecuted. Essentially, bringing a criminal case for lying on a government form is a relatively low priority for prosecutors. But we have also shown that the federal numbers do not tell the complete picture, because there is strong evidence that state officials use background checks to pick up and charge fugitives and other at-large criminals.

Cruz, in a talking point he also repeated on Lou Dobbs show, placed the blame for this problem on the Obama administration. He got one set of numbers wrong — in 2010 the number of felons and fugitive denied a firearm was actually 48,000, not 15,000 — but the number of prosecutions he cited (44) was on the nose. That’s out of nearly 73,000 total denials, for a variety of reasons, by the FBI.

Still, we were intrigued by his partisan framing of the problem. So we dug into the numbers again to see if there was much difference between Barack Obama and the administration of George W. Bush in prosecuting such cases.

Ever since the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) was established, government reports — such as by the General Accounting Office in 2003 and the Justice Department Inspector General in 2004 — have documented how few people are prosecuted. In 2002 and 2003, for instance, the IG found that only 154 people (less than one percent) out of 120,000 denials were prosecuted — about an average of 78 prosecutions a year.

Starting in 2005, annual studies of the NICS system began listing the number of prosecutions per year that resulted from federal background checks. Generally, about the same number of people is denied through state agencies, but the records are spotty on how many state prosecutions resulted.

Below is the key data. The 2005 report did not break out the actual number of fugitives or felons, but just gave a percentage. We calculated the percentage of denials out of all denials because the data does not how cases involved felons or fugitives.

2010: 72,659 denials

34,459 felony convictions/indictments

13,862 fugitives

44 prosecutions (0.06 percent of denials)

2009: 67,324 denials

32,652 felony convictions/indictments

11,341 fugitives

77 prosecutions (0.11 percent)

2008: 70,725 denials

39,526 felony convictions/indictments

9,464 fugitives

105 prosecutions (0.15 percent)

2007: 73,992 denials

23,703 felony convictions/indictments

4,803 fugitives

122 prosecutions (0.16 percent)

2006: 69,930 denials

25,259 felony convictions/indictments

4,235 fugitives

112 prosecutions (0.16 percent)

2005: 66,705 denials

36.8 percent felony convictions/indictments

5.3 percent fugitives

135 prosecutions (0.20 percent)

Clearly there is a bit a downward trend here, with the low point reached in 2010, both in terms of raw numbers and as a percentage of denials. (We suspect there might have been a brief burst of enthusiasm for more prosecutions after the critical 2004 IG report.)

But the differences are really on the margins. Neither the Bush administration nor Obama administration ever prosecuted even on fourth of 1 percent of the people who failed to pass a criminal background check.

“The senator did not mention President Bush, did not say Bush was better,” said Cruz communications director Sean Rushton. “We’re talking about the current administration, which we are debating on its current hard push for new gun regulation. Obama’s prosecution stats stand on their own, regardless of the Bush record. And the underlying point is the same — why increase restrictions on law-abiding people when we’re not prosecuting under current law?”

If Cruz wants to attack the fact that relatively few people are prosecuted by federal prosecutors for lying on a background check, he should drop the partisan frame.

This clearly has never been a priority in either Republican or Democratic administrations. So Cruz’s claim that Obama has not made this a priority lacks the proper context and represents “selective telling of the truth.”

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