President Trump hasn’t just failed to strengthen America’s gun laws in the wake of repeated mass shootings, he’s systematically gutted existing laws in ways that make kids and communities less safe:
—Trump illegally narrowed the definition of “fugitive from justice” that’s used to determine who’s barred from buying a gun. Any person “who is a fugitive from justice” is prohibited from purchasing or possessing a gun under federal law. For the purpose of the federal background check system for gun sales, the FBI had long interpreted “fugitive from justice” to include anyone with an outstanding arrest warrant. But less than one month into his Presidency, Trump’s DOJ directed the FBI’s background check operators to narrow the definition. It now only bars an individual with an arrest warrant from buying a gun if they: (1) fled a state; and (2) did so with the purpose of avoiding prosecution; and (3) were subject to imminent criminal prosecution. The result? More individuals with outstanding arrest warrants, including for dangerous offenses, can now purchase guns.
SIDEBAR: By requiring that an individual leave a state with the specific intent to avoid prosecution, the new definition would only prevent those with a particular state of mind from buying guns. That’s incredibly difficult to prove. But Trump’s move isn’t just dangerous, it’s also unlawful. The definition change is a departure from long-standing FBI practice, and it came without notice or opportunity for public input, much less any explanation of how to prove the fugitive’s state of mind—a violation of the Administrative Procedure Act.
—He illegally purged 500,000 records from the federal background check system. Trump didn’t just narrow the definition of “fugitives from justice”: the Administration also removed all existing records in the federal background check system identifying fugitives who would be prohibited from purchasing guns. When Trump took office, the background check system contained entries for nearly 500,000 people who had been flagged as “fugitives from justice.” They purged all these records, and to date have only restored, about 1,000 entries under the category. The FBI is required, including by its own regulations, to maintain this critically important database. The Administration’s reckless conduct in purging these records constitutes a failure to meet its obligations under federal law.
SIDEBAR: Purging records is not the only way Trump is attempting undermine the federal background check system. His proposed budget would also slash funding that would help states upload necessary records to the background check system by 16 percent. That funding is essential to ensure guns are not sold to people prohibited from owning them, including dangerous criminals. For example, after receiving background check funding, Connecticut was able to identify and upload more than 50,000 records for individuals who qualified as “fugitives from justice.” Those records were included in the massive data purge, and Trump’s proposed budget cut would make it less likely they will ever be replaced.
—He froze a rule that would have prohibited more people who are dangerous because they suffer from severe mental illness from buying guns. Federal law prohibits the sale of a firearm to any person who has been “adjudicated as a mental defective” or “committed to a mental institution.” Those terms are old and unclear, and as a result, there are gaping loopholes in our gun laws. In 2014, DOJ proposed a rule to fix this problem and prohibit certain people from buying guns, including those “committed to an outpatient mental institution,” “found incompetent to stand trial…in state, local and military courts,” and “found guilty but mentally ill by a court.” This important change would have kept guns out of the hands of those who are dangerous because of serious mental illness, but the gun lobby opposed the change. So instead of finalizing the rule, President Trump stopped it in its tracks.
SIDEBAR: After side-lining the DOJ proposed rule, President Trump went further. Working with Republicans in Congress, and cheered on by the gun lobby, Trump rolled back a rule that allowed the Social Security Administration to provide information to the national background check system about individuals who had been deemed unable to handle their financial affairs and unable to work based on a severe mental illness.
—He halted a proposal to require gun makers and dealers to sell child safety devices in stores where guns are sold. Federal law requires gun sellers to certify that “gun storage or safety devices will be available at any place in which firearms are sold.” In 2016, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) proposed a rule to close two regulatory loopholes that undermined the law. The first loophole: ATF rules fail to explicitly require gun manufacturers to make safety devices available for purchase, even when selling directly to customers on their premises. The second: ATF rules fail to explicitly require that the safety devices actually be compatible with the guns offered for sale. The gun lobby opposed closing these dangerous loopholes, calling the proposed gun safety rule “burdensome and expensive.” So upon taking office, Trump pulled the plug on these common sense protections.
SIDEBAR: Rolling back child safety protections isn’t the only way Trump is lining the pockets of the gun industry. He’s also proposing to deregulate the export of assault weapons despite wide recognition that this class of weaponry is “the primary means of injury, death, and destruction in civil and military conflicts throughout the world.” But, as experts recognize, this is hardly just an issue affecting people in distant countries: These small arms can “easily fall into hands of those who seek to undermine U.S. national security.”