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WASHINGTON -- Millions of fugitives can pass undetected through federal background checks and buy guns illegally because police departments across the country routinely fail to put their names into a national database that tracks people on the run from the law.
Those background checks, conducted by the FBI, are designed to block fugitives, felons, the mentally ill and others who might be violent from buying firearms. They automatically bar sales to anyone identified in federal records as having an outstanding arrest warrant, even if it is for a minor crime.
Yet despite years of attempts to shore up the government's National Instant Background Check System, enormous gaps remain, particularly when it comes to identifying fugitives. In five states alone, law enforcement agencies failed to provide information to the FBI about at least 2.5 million outstanding arrest warrants, police and court records show. Among them are tens of thousands of people wanted for violent offenses and other felonies.
"I remember when I bought my first gun thinking that I could have had a felony warrant for murder and they wouldn't have known," said Kevin Collins, who supervises Michigan's fugitive database for the state police.
Michigan police are required to report every arrest warrant to the state police, but they share only about 7% with the FBI � a process that would require little more than checking two boxes in the state's computer system. The result is that the federal databases used to conduct background checks are missing more than 900,000 Michigan arrest warrants. That means a fugitive from Michigan could walk into a gun store anywhere in the country, agree to a background check and walk out with a gun and neither the FBI nor the store would have any way to know he was wanted.
The gaps are largely a byproduct of the fact that police and prosecutors are often unwilling to spend the time or money to pursue fugitives across a state border. The FBI fugitive database is built to help police find people once they leave the state, and many agencies see no reason to include the names of fugitives they have no intention of pursuing.
An investigation last month by USA TODAY found that tens of thousands of fugitives -- including people on the run from charges of robbery, sexual assault and murder -- could escape justice merely by crossing a state border. Those fugitives are responsible for a substantial share of violent crime. In Washington, for example, one of every six people charged with murder was already wanted by the police for another crime.