People with open arrest warrants or “fugitives from justice” have technically not been allowed to purchase firearms, but many are not challenged for doing so until after the guns are in their possession. This has led to a longstanding dispute between the FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check, who screen sales, and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives who are charged with retrieving guns sold to the wrong people.
According to an internal memo reported on by The Trace, the Department of Justice has decided that a person with an arrest warrant should only be disqualified from buying a gun because they’re fleeing “imminent prosecution or a summons to testify in a legal case.” Even then, they must be buying the gun in a different state from where the warrant is issued for it to be a problem.
Until now, NICS flagged people who violated the previous rule, which demanded anyone with an outstanding arrest warrant either be stopped from purchasing a gun or have their case sent to the ATF, who were then tasked with going to get it back. However, the ATF has argued for many years that folks with arrest warrants should be allowed to buy guns in their state, so not much gun retrieval was happening. According to an audit from the Justice Department’s Office of the Inspector General last year, the ATF ignored about 2,183 cases in which someone violated the standing rule.
The DOJ is essentially confirming the ATF’s interpretation of who qualifies as a “fugitive” when they’re purchasing a gun. The Police Foundation is an independent organization dedicated to improving policing and their executive director Jim Buermann told The Trace that he believes the decision simply came about because if the ATF won’t do the job, it doesn’t matter if gun buyers are violating the law.
“The FBI would deny stuff and the ATF would say, ‘No, it’s okay with us.’ From an efficiency standpoint that didn’t make any sense, “ Buermann says, “Somebody finally said, ‘This is the rule. Let’s move forward.’”
The NICS system’s filter for arrest warrants has stopped 160,000 gun sales since 1998.