RENO (AP) — At least three dozen people failed background checks in the past year but kept guns they purchased because the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives no longer has agents in northern Nevada to retrieve the weapons, a newspaper report has found.

The Nevada Department of Public Safety in charge of conducting the background checks says it followed normal procedures and sent letters to the Reno ATF office asking agents to take back firearms from 36 people.

But the Reno Gazette-Journal reported Sunday that most Reno ATF agents transferred out of the area after a dispute erupted between the ATF office and local federal prosecutors.

The clash followed a September 2011 letter from an assistant U.S. attorney to the ATF that their cases wouldn’t be prosecuted until unnamed “issues” were resolved.

The Gazette-Journal reported that it requested copies of the ATF retrieval letters to check the names against court records and to see if the buyers committed crimes using these guns, but public safety officials would not release the names or documents. They said FBI security policy prohibits the release of criminal histories or personal information.

ATF Special Agent Vince Cefalu, a whistleblower in the botched Department of Justice “Fast and Furious” gun-walking operation, said one of the agency’s duties is to collect guns from people who fail the background checks.

“But because of the rift with the federal prosecutors in Reno,” there are no agents there to retrieve those weapons and there would be no hope of prosecution if they arrested the person.

State public safety records show NDPS background checks statewide have risen from about 60,000 in 2007 to a peak last year of 104,288. Through October it’s about 93,000, similar to 2009 and 2010.

“This is a direct threat to public safety,” Cefalu said.

Bonnie McCabe, a program officer in public safety’s Division of Records and Technology, said she received an email early this year from the former Reno ATF supervisor saying his office was not doing the firearm retrievals because of the rift with the U.S. Attorney’s office.

But McCabe said her office has continued to send the letters, including as recently as this month.

Chief Patrick Conmay, head of the records and technology division, defended the agency’s actions, saying they were doing their part and the rest was up to ATF.

“We’re making the notifications that are required,” Conmay said. “They’re going to have to answer to how they’re handling this.”

Both McCabe and Conmay said they did not contact the ATF San Francisco Field Office to find out whether they were calling in other agents to do the retrievals, but instead assumed they were coming up with a backup plan for Reno.

ATF Special Agent Helen Dunkel, spokeswoman for the San Francisco office, said last week they were “looking into the procedure for Reno” and said questions were being referred to ATF headquarters in Washington D.C. A message sent to the Department of Justice seeking comment wasn’t returned.

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