Department of Justice officials have settled a long-simmering internal dispute over who qualifies as a “fugitive from justice” when it comes to gun possession — making it possible going forward for some people with outstanding arrest warrants to buy firearms legally.
According to an FBI memo obtained by The Trace, the DOJ has decided that people with open arrest warrants should only be disqualified from buying guns if they have left the state where the warrant was issued, and did so to avoid imminent prosecution or a summons to testify in a legal case.
In doing so, the Justice Department effectively sided with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives, the agency that is responsible for enforcing federal gun laws. The ATF had long argued that language in the Brady Act — the 1993 law that created the federal background check system — requiring federal agents to block gun sales to fugitives should be interpreted to mean people with arrest warrants who have fled across state lines. The FBI, which runs the background check system, had adopted a broader definition, blocking sales to anyone with an outstanding arrest warrant.
From November 1998 to February 2017, the FBI denied more than 175,000 sales because the would-be purchaser had an outstanding warrant— second only to the total barred by convictions for felonies or serious misdemeanors. According to an audit last year by the department’s Office of the Inspector General, the ATF disagreed with roughly a third of those rejections.
The new rule means that the FBI will block fewer sales to people with outstanding arrest warrants.
“It will be more difficult in the future to deny a fugitive,” said Darrel Stephens, executive director of the Major Cities Chiefs Association, an organization of police executives representing the largest cities in the United States and Canada. “Someone will have to look at each case to determine if the fugitive meets the criteria. It is not clear who will do that.”