The Trump administration announced charges Monday against a Tennessee man accused of lying in order to try to buy a gun — mounting the kind of prosecution the Obama administration had generally shied away from.
Authorities say Kari Milak Whitehead, 26, who according to court documents had converted to Islam, was watching Islamic State propaganda videos and had indicated he wanted to kill “white people,” tried to buy a rifle from a Walmart last month.
On his background check form he said he’d never been committed to a mental institution, concealing a commitment ordered by a judge in December, the government says.
Prosecutors said that by attempting to buy a gun while lying on his background check, he ran afoul of the law.
It’s a charge that the government has usually led slide.
Tens of thousands of people are denied gun purchases each year, many for past criminal or mental health issues, yet prosecutions are “extremely low,” the Justice Department inspector general said in a 2016 report.
From 2008 to 2015, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives referred just 509 cases to U.S. attorneys, who only accepted 254 of them for prosecution. In contrast, 166 subjects were accepted for prosecution consideration in 2003 alone, it said.
U.S. Attorney’s offices most often prosecuted National Instant Criminal Background System denial cases when “aggravated circumstances” existed in addition to at least one false “no” on a gun buy application form, the report said.
Gun prosecutions — or the lack of them — have gotten more attention in the wake of last month’s school massacre in Parkland, Florida.
Several senators are pushing new legislation that would require federal authorities to alert state law enforcement within 24 hours when the national instant check system flags a person who lies about his background to try to get a gun.
Federal officials are notified when a person prohibited from buying a gun, like a convicted felon or domestic abuser, tries to buy one but fails a NICS check.
Thirteen states already run their own background checks through NICS, but the bill is meant to alert state and local authorities in the other 37 states and the District of Columbia to people barred from getting a gun who “lie and try” to buy one.
In Mr. Whitehead’s case, authorities say he was arrested in 2013 and charged with aggravated assault with a deadly weapon and possession of a prohibited weapon after displaying a hand grenade at a nightclub.
Last November, police visited Mr. Whitehead’s residence because a family member reported he was “acting out of control and crazy.” The family member told police Mr. Whitehead had converted to Islam, may have become radicalized and, they feared, would commit mass murder.
A day later police visited again and the family member reported Mr. Whitehead had said “that white people are going to end up getting it.”
A month later a judge committed Mr. Whitehead for a mental evaluation because of his Islamic State research. The order was renewed Dec. 19, according to the court complaint.
On Feb. 22, Mr. Whitehead went to a Walmart to try to buy a semiautomatic rifle “that could hold a lot of bullets,” the ATF agent said in the complaint. His background check twice came back as “denied.”
If convicted, Mr. Whitehead could get up to 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine.