Last month, the Department of Justice passed judgment on a long-running interagency dispute about who does, and who doe not, count as a “fugitive”. Accordingly, some 500,000 records were deleted from the National Criminal Background Check System (NICS) by the FBI.
Security experts have criticized the move, claiming that deletions such as these weaken a system that has been put in place to screen out people who are potentially dangerous, and wanted by law enforcement.
The NICS system itself forms one pillar of the background check system, which incorporates several other checks. NICS is a point-of-sale computer system which includes the records of approximately 16 million people who the authorities have decided should not be allowed to purchase or own firearms.
The recent deletion of 500,000 records from the database is due to the DOJ raising the bar on what counts as a “fugitive”. In their ruling, they stipulated that an individual must knowingly flee an open arrest warrant over state lines before being banned from owning guns.
The fact that these records have been deleted does not mean that the 500,000 people affected can go out and buy a gun. Federal investigators check those buying firearms against three different systems to make sure that they are not convicted felons, or otherwise barred. It might be that the people whose records were deleted from NICS appear on these other systems, and would therefore still be barred from buying firearms.
However, law enforcement experts are worried that measures such as these allow potentially dangerous individuals to purchase firearms more easily, and that anything that allows this to happen is inherently dangerous. They note that, in the simplest appreciation, the ruling means that more people with outstanding arrest warrants will be able to access weapons, and that this could put the public at risk.
The ruling centers on the definition of the term “fugitive from justice”, a somewhat vague category of offenders who, under federal law, cannot legally buy guns. Prior to last month, this was interpreted to mean that everybody with an arrest warrant open on them was a fugitive. The new ruling means that individuals must actively flee across state lines to be regarded as a “fugitive”, significantly reducing the number of people who appear on the NICS system.
Background checks are a complicated business. When the FBI checks if an individual is allowed to buy a gun, it checks their name against three databases – the NICS system, which is made up of information provided by federal and state agencies, the Interstate Identification Index, a database of criminal histories, and the National Crime Information Center, or NCIC.
Using these systems, the FBI denied 175,000 transactions between 1998 and 2017 because the individual buying a gun had an outstanding arrest warrant. In fact, having an outstanding warrant was the second most common reason for denying a would-be purchaser a gun, behind them having been convicted of a felony.
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