Conservative Media Cooks Up Outlandish Claim That Obama Admin. Is Racially Profiling Gun Owners

Right-wing outlets are claiming that the Obama administration is using the standard form for federal gun background checks to engage in “racial profiling” and to find out “who has guns” because the form asks about race and ethnicity. But the form has asked for this information since at least 2001, and identifying information is destroyed within hours of a background check being processed.

People who buy firearms from licensed dealers are required to fill out the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives' Form 4473, which is processed by the FBI-administered National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS). The form asks buyers for information such as name, height, weight, date of birth, and race and ethnicity.

In a September 16 article, Washington Times reporter Kelly Riddell wrote that a 2012 revision of Form 4473 meant that "[t]he Obama administration quietly has been forcing new gun buyers to declare their race and ethnicity, a policy change that critics say provides little law enforcement value while creating the risk of privacy intrusions and racial profiling." According to Riddell, the change was made by the ATF "[w]ith little fanfare."

But the previous version of Form 4473, issued in August 2008, also asked about race and ethnicity in question 10:

The change in the 2012 revision is that race and ethnicity were separated into questions 10.a. and 10.b.:

The Times story has been touted by Fox Nation, conspiracy website WND, Newsmax, and The Week.

The claim that the Obama administration is racially profiling and tracking gun owners has also made the jump to Fox News.

During the September 18 edition of Fox & Friends, co-host Elisabeth Hasselbeck suggested that “the Obama administration [is] violating the rights of gun owners ... now that gun buyers will have to inform the government of their race and ethnicity” and that the form puts “people's privacy at risk.”

During the segment, senior legal analyst Andrew Napolitano said of the form, which has been in use since the mid-1990s, “So why do you need to fill out a form, the government's form, in order to protect yourself? Well, the government has decided it wants to know who has guns.”

Like The Washington Times, Hasselbeck and Napolitano were badly misleading about the history of the gathering of this information. In addition to the race and ethnicity question appearing on the previous version of the form, the question has been included for at least the past 13 years. Here is the form from October 2001:

The government is also not using the forms to track “who has guns.” Because federal law prohibits the creation of a national gun registry, “the NICS Section must destroy all identifying information on allowed transactions prior to the start of the next NICS operational day.”

Tellingly, the segment never clearly explained that the form was used to conduct a background check, a process supported by the vast majority of Americans.

Fox's Outnumbered also ran a segment on the 2012 form revision on September 18, specifically citing The Washington Times' poor reporting. Co-host Sandra Smith told viewers, “Did you know new gun buyers are now asked their race and ethnicity when going to buy a firearm? The Obama administration has quietly implemented a policy change that was quietly enacted in 2012, according to The Washington Times.” Co-host Kimberly Guilfoyle said that the questions violate the Second Amendment and predicted “it's not going to hold up” in court.