Challenge Ashcroft on Guns
Sens. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Charles E.
Schumer (D-N.Y.) introduced legislation yesterday that would reverse a
proposal by Attorney General John D. Ashcroft to cut the length of time
the government can keep records when it conducts instant background checks
on gun purchases.
The lawmakers also formally requested that Ashcroft turn over all memos and other documents related to his decision to reduce the time law enforcement agencies can retain records from 90 days to 24 hours. They asked also that he justify his decision.
"Purging these files after only 24 hours is at best reckless policy," Schumer said during a news conference. "At worst, it's the Bush administration's way of saying 'thank you' for the [National Rifle Association's] get-out-the-vote efforts last fall. Either way, this decision corrupts the government's ability to fight crime."
Ashcroft announced last month that he would drastically reduce the time that records are kept on gun transactions, a move that infuriated gun control advocates but was lauded by the NRA, which opposes retaining the records for any period. Ashcroft can change the policy without legislation but is accepting public comment on his proposal through Sept. 4, spokeswoman Mindy Tucker said.
Kennedy and Schumer argued that records need to be kept for 90 days to help law enforcement agencies uncover fraud in gun sales, such as gun dealers not conducting background checks.
"The changes the attorney general is proposing will seriously restrict background checks and undermine the effectiveness of the law," Kennedy said.
Ashcroft has maintained that accurate auditing of records can occur within 24 hours. A spokesman declined to comment yesterday on the Democrats' proposed legislation, saying department officials have not seen it yet.
Justice Department officials said last month that Ashcroft's plan was developed with input from the FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms to improve the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS).
NICS, operated by the FBI and state governments, checks law enforcement records of gun buyers. It is mandated by the Brady Law, named for James Brady, President Ronald Reagan's press secretary, who was paralyzed by a bullet during an attempt to assassinate the president in 1981. The Brady Law and its background checks have stopped nearly 690,000 criminals and other excluded people from buying guns, Kennedy said.
"We simply cannot afford to jeopardize the safety of our families and our communities by hobbling the NICS," said Brady's wife, Sarah Brady, chairwoman of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. "It is becoming increasingly obvious that the NRA's wish is the Bush administration's command."
Although he has not spoken publicly about the issue, it seems unlikely that President Bush would approve the Kennedy-Schumer legislation. A similar measure failed in the House earlier this month.
Schumer contended yesterday that some FBI officials have objected to changing the retention period to 24 hours. "We believe there is an FBI memo opposing the change," he said in explaining the request for Justice Department records on the matter. "We've been told that there were lots of arguments . . . that this should not be done."
James J. Baker, the NRA's chief lobbyist, said he was not surprised that Schumer and Kennedy want to reverse Ashcroft's plan.
"But it's a long way from introduction in the Senate to having it signed by the president," Baker said.
Jon Cowan, president of Americans for Gun Safety, a moderate gun control group, said the legislation is necessary to protect law-abiding gun purchasers and dealers.
"We support the efforts . . . to get to the bottom of this decision by the Justice Department to destroy NICS records within 24 hours," Cowan said in a statement. "It's a shame it had to come to this."
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