Group says Alaska felons elude background checks

Posted: Friday, January 18, 2002

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- Alaska felons who are barred by federal law from owning firearms have slipped past background checks and illegally bought guns, according to a report by a national advocacy group, Americans for Gun Safety Foundation.

The report released this week gave Alaska a C for its record on background checks in a state-by-state report that gave failing grades to 22 states.

''From our grading, it's not good, but it's better than most states,'' said Lisa Kimbrough, who co-wrote the report. North Carolina got the highest grade, a B+. Those receiving Fs included Indiana and Alabama.

Americans for Gun Safety is a nonprofit organization formed in 2000 by Andy McKelvey, an Internet mogul who has taken up the cause of gun safety.

Almost 10,000 people nationwide who should have been barred from buying firearms were able to do so because of serious gaps in the automation of criminal records, the report said.

Most had felony records, including 173 in Alaska, said the report, which tallied the numbers over 2 1/2 years starting in December 1998.

But officials in Alaska said the report overstates the number of Alaskans who illegally bought firearms. They say more of Alaska's records are automated than the report indicates. FBI officials say the program works well despite gaps in records.

The federal Brady law bars certain categories of people from owning guns, including felons, people under felony indictment, fugitives, illegal immigrants, people with misdemeanor domestic violence convictions or who are under domestic violence restraining orders, and people who have been committed to a mental institution.

In 34 states, including Alaska, the FBI does at least some of the Brady law background checks. The other states do the work themselves. The problem, Kimbrough said, is largely with the states that rely on the FBI, which uses a national criminal database that may be less complete than state records.

Of 40 million criminal records in the national database, about half don't include conviction information, which is needed to approve gun sales, said Tim Munson, who oversees the 500 FBI employees who work in the National Instant Criminal Background Check System.

About a quarter of Alaska felony conviction records are not in the national database, the gun safety report said. So FBI examiners based in West Virginia must call local courthouses to learn what happened in court. For instance, the database might show only that John Doe was charged with burglary, a felony. If the FBI later finds out the charge was reduced to misdemeanor theft, Doe can buy a gun, Munson said.

The gap may not be as bad as the foundation states, said Ken Bischoff, director of administrative services for the Alaska Department of Public Safety. A department report found that 11 percent of cases older than 2 years lacked conviction data. More recent cases could simply be unresolved.

The system ''does screen out a lot of folks. It doesn't screen out all of them,'' Bischoff said.

Most of the FBI checks are completed in seconds and 95 percent are done within two hours, Munson said. If the check stretches past three days, the gun dealer can make the sale anyway, and that accounts for many of the sales at issue. Should a problem turn up after that, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms or local police must retrieve the gun.

That doesn't happen often in Alaska, said Donald Gillispie, resident ATF agent in charge in Anchorage.

Most Alaskans initially flagged for wrongly purchasing guns actually had had their convictions set aside under state law, which restored their gun rights, Gillispie said.

Some people have been flagged who have no criminal record at all. They got mixed up with someone whose name sounded similar, said Wayne Ross, an Anchorage attorney and national board member of the National Rifle Association.

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