The Trump administration has made it easier for fugitives, mentally ill to buy guns

The gun lobby is already seeing a return on its $30 million investment in Trump.

Handguns fill up a trash can for recycling in Los Angeles.CREDIT: AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes
Handguns fill up a trash can for recycling in Los Angeles.CREDIT: AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes

In the seven weeks since he took office, President Trump and his administration have already made it easier for people with outstanding arrest warrants and people with mental illness to legally buy guns.

In a move that went largely unnoticed, Trump signed a bill in the end of February loosening Obama-era restrictions on the sale of firearms to people with mental illness. And according to a report this week, the Department of Justice issued a memo last month saying it will make it easier for fugitives to buy guns in the state where they are wanted.

The first move was championed by the National Rifle Association, the single largest outside donor to Trump’s presidential campaign. While the NRA did not immediately respond to request for comment on the DOJ memo, the policy change seems to fit into the group’s goal of blocking fewer people from purchasing weapons.

“Today marks a new era for law-abiding gun owners.”

Both changes demonstrate how quickly the Trump administration is willing to act to dismantle federal gun laws.

“Today marks a new era for law-abiding gun owners, as we now have a president who respects and supports our right to keep and bear arms,” Chris W. Cox, director of the NRA’s political arm, said in a statement the day Trump signed the background check legislation.

The DOJ move was first reported by the Trace, which obtained a copy this week of the memo that lays out how the government will define who qualifies as a “fugitive from justice” when it comes to the possession of guns. Under the new rule, the FBI — the group that maintains the background check system — will only be allowed to block gun sales to people who have fled the state where their arrest warrant was issued.

Previously, the FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) disagreed on how to interpret the Brady Act of 1993. The FBI took it to mean that anyone with an outstanding warrant should be blocked from a gun sale, while the ATF interpreted the law to mean it should only block gun sales to anyone who has left the state of their warrant.

In the memo, the DOJ made it clear that it is siding with the ATF’s definition.

According to the Trace, “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.” Only about a third of those applications would be rejected by ATF or under the new policy.

Shannon Watts, founder of Moms Demand Action, called the memo “a little-noticed policy change” that would “allow more dangerous people to get guns.”

Meanwhile, the legislation passed by both chambers of Congress and signed by Trump last month reverses a protection that the Obama administration predicted would have added about 75,000 names to the background check database because of a mental illness or a person’s inability to handle their own finances.

Watts told ThinkProgress that the same lawmakers who claim that gun violence is caused by mental illness and not guns have “turned around and made it easier for the mentally ill to get guns.”

In a statement to NBC, Everytown for Gun Safety President John Feinblatt also called the action “just the first item on the gun lobby’s wish list.”

The NRA, the nation’s largest gun lobby, contributed more than $30 million to Trump’s campaign, and Watts said that the group is “going to expect to see a return on their investment.”

Currently in Congress, a number of gun lobby-supported bills have been introduced and are pending votes. House Resolution 1181 would repeal a law blocking Veteran Administration beneficiaries from buying and possessing firearms when they’ve been found mentally incompetent. A separate bill would deregulate firearms silencers, which dampen the noise of gunshots, and another would allow for concealed carry reciprocity, or authorize people without permits or training to carry firearms across state lines.

“A lot of this legislation is stuff written by lawmakers beholden to the gun lobby and they’ve just been waiting for a Republican president to sign it,” Watts said.

Trump has invited NRA Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre to the White House and has vowed to follow through with even more of the group’s demands, like eliminating gun-free zones.

“I am going to save your Second Amendment,” Trump declared in September. “The National Rifle Association has endorsed me, and they are great people. We are going to save your Second Amendment.”

While it’s too early to measure the effects Trump’s gun policies will have on safety, Watts warned that more relaxed gun laws always mean more deaths.

“If loose gun laws and more guns made us safer, we’d be the safest country in the world,” she said. “Instead, we have the highest rate of gun violence of any developed nation.”