Fox News attacked the Obama administration by reviving the false claim that in 2012 the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) began asking gun purchasers about their race and ethnicity on background check forms. In fact, ethnicity questions have been on the background check form for more than a decade.
On the April 21 edition of Fox News' The Real Story, guest host Martha MacCallum and Fox News senior judicial analyst Judge Andrew Napolitano trumpeted the efforts of GOP lawmakers to stop the ATF from asking gun buyers about race. Napolitano argued, “I can only think that insisting upon knowing the race of the person, is perhaps so this Obama administration, so decidedly anti-gun, could say, oh by the way, such and such a percentage of whites buy -- and the amount of non-whites that buy is a smaller percentage, and we don't like that.”
During the segment, an on-screen “Fox Facts” graphic wrongly claimed that ATF began “requiring gun buyers to answer questions about race & ethnicity on firearm applications” in 2012.
Contrary to the “Fox Facts” assertion, a question about race and ethnicity has been on the firearm background check form since at least 2001.
People who buy firearms from licensed dealers are required to fill out the ATF's Form 4473, which is processed by the FBI-administered National Instant Criminal Background Check System. The form asks buyers for information such as name, height, weight, date of birth, and race and ethnicity that helps the gun dealer determine if the buyer is being truthful about his or her identity.
The origin of Fox's claim originates from a debunked September 2014 Washington Times report. The Times reported 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."
In fact the change to the form that occurred in 2012 was merely the separation of a question about race and ethnicity from a single question box into a new format where race and ethnicity information is collected in two question boxes. The minor change made by ATF was consistent with similar changes made on Census forms. Still, the flawed Times report, which was amplified by Fox News at the time, spurred two Republican House members to introduce legislation to remove questions about race and ethnicity from Form 4473.
In addition to misleading about changes to the background check form on The Real Story, Napolitano also falsely told viewers that they could “bypass” the race question on the background check form and still take home a firearm.
In fact, in order for the gun background check form to be processed, the buyer must certify that Section A, including the question about race, is “complete,” meaning that a dealer would not proceed with a sale with the question unanswered unless he or she wanted to risk committing a records keeping violation.