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Officials warn sequester could hinder gun control

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All sides say they want better enforcement of current gun laws, but law enforcement officials are warning the budget cuts looming at the end of this week would be a major setback to those efforts — and could end up putting more guns in the hands of criminals.

The Obama administration has told Congress that every FBI employee would be furloughed for 14 workdays and nearly $60 million would be cut from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, putting a dent in the government's ability to investigate and prosecute gun crimes — a top priority in the wake of the December school shootings in Connecticut.

The cuts would also hit the national instant criminal background check system (NICS) for gun purchases, leading to a backlog that could allow criminals to slip though the system, FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III wrote to Congress earlier this month.

When more than three days pass after a gun dealer enters a buyer's information into the system and doesn't get a response, that dealer can sell the gun without a final determination on the buyer's criminal and/or mental health background — a potentially dangerous proposition, Mr. Mueller wrote.

"Delays in processing and adjudicating NICS requests increases the risk of firearms being transferred to a convicted felon or other prohibited person which, in turn, would have a significant detrimental effect on public and law enforcement safety at a time when the NICS workload is expanding," the director said in his letter.

On average, about 43,500 background checks are performed every day, according to the FBI. The system is available seven days a week, including holidays.

The Justice Department also says that with a cut of nearly $100 million to prosecutors' offices across the country, U.S. attorneys won't be able to handle as many cases.

The department said it projects handling 1,600 fewer civil cases and 1,000 fewer criminal cases if the sequesters take effect.

Democrats and Republicans have called for states to turn over more records to the NICS system in the wake of the shooting deaths of 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.

David Chipman, a former ATF agent who now works with the gun-control advocacy group Mayors Against Illegal Guns, said the agency doesn't have extra agents to spare, and said the impact of any cuts would be felt.

"There are twice as many gun dealers as there are post offices, and the ATF is an agency that's smaller than the Broward County [Fla.] sheriff's office," Mr. Chipman said. "There are hundreds of ATF inspectors trying to oversee the conduct of tens of thousands of dealers.

"It's already an uphill battle. Just the thought that we would have an ATF agent trained to be on the street trying to prevent the next attack, sitting at home because the government can't pay him to work is just incredible."

The Newtown shooting rampage has injected new energy into the push for gun control, and the Senate Judiciary Committee has scheduled votes on four bills later this week, including one measure to reinstitute the ban on military-style semiautomatic firearms. Republicans, however, could delay action for a week by using procedural moves.

Many Republicans have said that before passing new laws, the government should more vigorously enforce the laws already on the books.

More than 20 House Republicans joined Rep. Bob Goodlatte, Virginia Republican and chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, in writing a recent letter to President Obama on the issue.

They said there were more than 76,000 background check denials in 2010. But of those, about 4,700 were referred to field offices for investigation, resulting in just 62 prosecutions.

Mr. Obama and gun-control advocates argue that the system has stopped 1.5 million people who should not be able to purchase firearms since the program's inception in 1998.

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