The danger of looming budget cuts could soon become all too real.
If lawmakers and President Obama can’t agree on a plan to avert the $85 billion across-the-board spending cuts set to take effect March 1 -- known as the sequester -- then the federal background check system for vetting gun buyers could face cuts, according to a letter FBI officials sent to lawmakers earlier this month.
In a letter to Senate Appropriations Committee chairwoman Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), FBI director Robert Mueller warned that the spending cuts would force his agency to furlough more than 2,000 workers, a loss of manpower that would ripple throughout the bureau.
"Delays in processing and adjudicating NICS requests increases the risk of firearms being transferred to a convicted felon or other prohibited person," Mueller wrote in the letter.
In a speech Tuesday, Obama urged Congress to pass his plan, which combines spending cuts and tax increases on the wealthy, to avoid the sequester. Republicans have said they won't raise taxes to cut the deficit.
The warning comes as demand for guns -- and the background checks they require -- surges in the wake of the Newtown shooting. Background checks for gun purchases jumped to a new record in December, according to FBI data. And gun store owners have reported anecdotally that demand has been so high in some cases that they don’t have enough guns and ammunition to meet it.
The gun background check system would be just one of many casualties of the budget cuts if they take effect. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said his agency would be forced to furlough nearly one-third of its workers, a move that could mean the meat industry shutting down for up to two weeks for lack of inspectors. The sequester could also cost the U.S. economy 750,000 jobs by some estimates and up to 1 million jobs by others.