The Department of Justice Department under former President Barack Obama directed the FBI to delete more than 500,000 names of fugitives with outstanding arrest warrants from the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, according to Wednesday testimony given to the Senate Judiciary Committee by acting FBI deputy director David Bowdich.
Under federal law, fugitives from justice are prohibited from purchasing a firearm, but the directive emerged from a debate regarding the definition of a fugitive from justice. The FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives engaged in a debate over the definition.
While the FBI considered any person with an outstanding arrest warrant to be a fugitive, the ATF defined a fugitive as someone who has an outstanding arrest warrant and has crossed state lines, the Daily Caller reported.
The debate was resolved at the end of Obama’s second term, when the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel sided with the ATF’s interpretation and implemented the decision by the Office of Legal Counsel. The action resulted in the removal of approximately a half million fugitives from the National Instant Criminal Background Check System.
Under the Trump administration, the DOJ defined a fugitive as someone who fled to another state to avoid criminal prosecution or evade giving testimony in criminal court.
During Wednesday’s Senate Judiciary Committee hearing regarding the faulty response by law enforcement to Parkland, Florida gunman Nikolas Cruz, California Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein asked Bowdich about the removal of fugitives from the background check system.
“That was a decision that was made under the previous administration,” Bowdich testified. “It was the Department of Justice’s Office of Legal Counsel that reviewed the law and believed that it needed to be interpreted so that if someone was a fugitive in a state, there had to be indications that they had crossed state lines. Otherwise they were not known to be a fugitive under the law and the way it was interpreted.”
Attorney General Jeff Sessions recently announced that the Justice Department will “aggressively” pursue anyone who falsifies information on a background check when applying to purchase a firearm.