Editorial Board

Trump’s Quiet Campaign to Undermine Background Checks

Safeguards work only if you want them to.

Vet more buyers, not fewer.

Photographer: Dominick Reuter/AFP/Getty Images

From 2008 to 2014, according to the U.S. Department of Justice, background checks prevented 556,496 gun purchases. In the last six months, about that many people have been removed from the national database and are newly eligible to buy a gun.

The FBI's national instant criminal background check system, which screens such transactions, is not quite perfect: It has an accuracy rate of more than 99 percent. President Donald Trump appears determined to make it less effective.

In February, Trump reversed a recently adopted regulation designed to restrict access to guns by the mentally impaired. He stopped the Social Security Administration from sending to the database the names of thousands of Social Security beneficiaries who are too impaired to handle their own affairs. As of 2013, more than 400,000 beneficiaries were prohibited from gun possession and would have had their records reported to the database.

Now the consequences of a less heralded decision made that same month have come into focus. Rebuffing the FBI, the Trump administration in February officially narrowed its definition of fugitives, who by federal law are prohibited from purchasing guns. According to the Department of Justice's new definition, a person must have crossed state lines to evade justice in order to be considered a fugitive. The decision is consistent with the federal code, which defines a fugitive as one who has “fled from any State to avoid prosecution for a crime or to avoid giving testimony in any criminal proceeding.”

But it flies in the face of common sense. The FBI had argued that the prohibition on gun purchases should apply to anyone with an outstanding warrant -- regardless of whether they are hunkered down in a local basement or fleeing cross country, which is often impossible to determine, let alone prove.

The problem with the background-check system is not that it is too strict, but that it is too lax. Thousands of private firearm transactions are not subject to background checks at all, despite overwhelming public support for such scrutiny, and too many mental health records are still not submitted for inclusion in the database. Another glaring loophole allows a gun sale to proceed if it hasn’t been officially denied within three days.

The gun lobby’s long, destructive effort to arm as many people as possible, with as few qualifications as possible, contributes to more than 100,000 shootings a year, a frenzy unique in the developed world. This particular American carnage is not one the Trump administration appears eager to stop.

    --Editors: Francis Wilkinson, Michael Newman.

    To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net .

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