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.
After a gunman killed 32 people at Virginia Tech in 2007, states rushed to pour more information into the databases the FBI uses to conduct its background checks, especially records that could help identify people diagnosed with mental illnesses. Gaps in fugitive reporting went largely unaddressed.
"It is unfortunately not surprising to me the extent to which there are holes in our system, given Congress' lack of success in addressing them," said Dan Gross, president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence.
It's clear that fugitives frequently are in the market for guns. The FBI has blocked more than 113,000 gun purchases since 1998 because of outstanding warrants, the second-leading reason for failed background checks. Those denials were based only on warrants reported to the FBI, and the handful of states that consult their own records before approving a purchase.
In Little Rock, Deandra Smith, already facing charges of shooting into a crowded nightclub,managed to buy at least four guns from a local pawn shop because a warrant for his arrest had never been reported to state or federal fugitive databases. "Without that, it wouldn't matter how many checks you ran," his lawyer, David Cannon, said.
How often fugitives are able to obtain weapons as a result is impossible to measure. Many states have strictly limited access to records that might identify gun owners, and others restrict access to their own databases of fugitives, making it difficult for the public to compare the two.
In 30 states and Washington, D.C., gun buyers are checked only against the FBI's database. Those states account for more than half of the nation's applications to purchase weapons, about 11.2 million in 2013. Another seven states run their own background checks on handgun purchasers — meaning they can also scrutinize records not shared with the FBI — but rely on the federal government to screen buyers of rifles and shotguns.
"The more information we can have, the more we can rely upon to make a sound decision about whether or not someone has the right to purchase a firearm," said Sean Ragan, who supervises the FBI's background checks.
The gaps add up to a "massive, but not well-documented, warrant under-reporting problem," researchers for Search, a non-profit that helps states share criminal records, concluded last year. They estimated as many as 6 million arrest warrants may be missing from FBI records.
The numbers add up quickly:
• In Ohio: State police know of 183,000 warrants that were not reported to the FBI. Other warrants aren't even reported to the state, said Les Reel, who supervises the state's fugitive database.
• In Washington: Police opted not to report more than 184,000 warrants to the FBI, including more than 13,000 for people accused of felonies, according to the Washington State Patrol. Washington conducts its own background checks on handgun buyers, but those fugitives would likely be able to buy guns in other states.
• In Arizona: Only about 13,000 of the 44,000 felony arrest warrants issued by state courts were reported to the FBI.
Police and courts are not required to share warrant information with the FBI.
Those checks can sometimes prove doubly useful for police. In many cases, when someone fails a background check because of an outstanding warrant, officials will both block his attempt to buy a gun and send a police officer to arrest him. In 2012, police in Virginia — which conducts its own background checks — arrested 102 fugitives when they tried to buy guns.
Follow investigative reporter Brad Heath on Twitter @bradheath.