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In March 2019, Mohamed Ahmed Warsame visited a local gun dealer in his southern Minnesota hometown of Owatonna to purchase a .45-caliber pistol and a rifle.
Mohamed, 36, wasn’t new to buying guns. He already held state hunting licenses and a concealed-carry permit. And he’d successfully bought his last firearm just two months before. Since emigrating to the U.S. from Somalia in 1999, Mohamed had never encountered legal problems.
“I’m a law-abiding citizen,” he said. “I follow the law and my religion.”
But on this day, the dealer told Mohamed he couldn’t sell to him. After running Mohamed’s name in the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS), the system flagged him as ineligible to purchase the pistol.
Mohamed resolved to find out why, and over the next few months, he figured it out: The FBI, he concluded, has mistaken him with another person in Minnesota who has a similar name. And despite multiple efforts over the last year and a half, Mohamed hasn’t been able to fix the situation. Now, seeing no other option, he’s suing.
Mohamed’s lawsuit, filed in federal court earlier this month, cites a federal law that requires the federal government to reinstate gun rights to anyone whose access was improperly denied. Beyond that, the law entitles Nathan Hansen, Mohamed’s attorney, to collect attorney fees from the government.
Hansen frequently litigates Second Amendment lawsuits and said that most revolve around someone with a past criminal record attempting to reinstate his or her gun rights. Mohamed’s alleged case of mistaken identity is something else.
“I haven’t seen anything like it,” Hansen said. “It is really significant.”
Department of Justice spokesperson Tasha Zerna, who works in the agency’s Minneapolis office, declined to comment on Mohamed’s lawsuit.
Haji Yussuf,president of the Somali American Gun Club, a local network that promotes responsible gun ownership in the Somali community, said Mohamed’s issue reminded him of his friends’ experiences finding themselves–mistakenly–on no-fly lists. Haji said his group supports Mohamed’s Second Amendment rights.
“If he has provided the evidence needed to get the clearance, there’s no excuse,” Haji said of Mohamed’s situation. “I don’t get why it’s taken a lawsuit for him to be able to do this.”
A case of mistaken identity?
The situation should be easy enough to solve. The other Mohamed Warsame has a different birthday and a different middle name; he lives in a different part of the state. He also has a mental health condition that’s led him to treatment in a psychiatric hospital (which is likely the situation that first brought his name to the NICS list). Mohamed has no such condition.
Shortly after Mohamed’s attempted gun purchase got rejected in March of last year, he filed a formal objection with the FBI. As part of that appeal, he mailed them his fingerprints, copies of his passport and driver’s license, his hunting licenses and his concealed-carry permit. After a few weeks of waiting, Mohamed got the same answer: He’d been flagged and couldn’t buy a weapon.
“After that I was confused,” he said. “I didn’t know what to do.”
Mohamed consulted with another gun dealer, who told him to wait one month, go back to the store and try to purchase the firearms again. He did exactly as told. The store turned him down again, for the same reason. “Whatever they have in their system, they were still sticking with that,” he said.
On his next attempt to resolve the issue, the FBI told Mohamed that the problem might be coming from the Minnesota state courts system. Mohamed made the drive to St. Paul and spoke to someone at the Minnesota Supreme Court office, yet still couldn’t fix the issue. The clerk told him to consult a lawyer.
It was at this point, through a lawyer, that Mohamed found the other person the FBI may have mistaken him for.
Both Mohamed and Hansen said they’re baffled that the misunderstanding has gone this far and required the filing of a lawsuit. Hansen asserted that he has more than enough identifying factors to prove to the federal government that Mohamed is who he says he is. Under the law, the DOJ must respond to their complaint by early October, and Hansen said that once he and the agency are talking, the issue should be resolved quickly.
“They don’t hire idiots to be U.S. assistant attorneys,” Hansen said, “so I don’t think I’m going to get an answer from them saying, ‘No, he really is the other guy!’”
Hansen said he couldn’t say for sure whether Mohamed’s name or immigrant background is related to why the federal government won’t resolve the issue more easily.
Would Mohamed have the same problems if his name were Joe Smith?
Mohamed said he believes similar mix-ups are happening to other Somalis. A similar problem came up last year when a St. Paul police officer pulled him over. During that incident, Mohamed said, he was driving the proper speed limit, when a cop pulled him over. The officer informed Mohamed that he’d run his plate number, and another person, with a warning, came up in the system.
After the officer ran Mohamed’s driver’s license, Mohamed said, the officer realized he was a different person and let him let him go.
In another incident, a highway trooper pulled him over for keeping an air freshener dangling from his car mirror. After the officer ran his driver’s license number, multiple names came up. Mohamed said the officer escorted him to his squad car to identify which name was his.
In all of these incidents, Mohamed argued, the government is not doing its proper job in identifying people. He questioned whether similar mix-ups happen to white people with common names like Joe Smith.
“They have all kinds of databases,” he said. “Each one of us has a different Social Security number. Each one of us lives in different cities.”
As for his lawsuit, whenever it ends, Mohamed said he’s no longer planning to buy a firearm. At this point, Mohamed said, “I just want to clear my name.”