Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft plans to initiate potentially far-reaching changes today in the national clearinghouse that the FBI uses to check the backgrounds of millions of would-be gun buyers, a move that could inflame gun control activists who accuse Ashcroft of kowtowing to the firearms lobby.
Although the Justice Department was keeping details of the plan under tight wraps, law enforcement sources said it would likely center on two elements: speeding up the processing of gun purchases and reducing the amount of time the FBI can keep gun records on file.
Activists on both sides of the gun debate are anxiously awaiting details of the plan because it will mark one of the first concrete steps on the gun control issue from Ashcroft, who earned a reputation as a staunch supporter of the National Rifle Assn. during his days in the Senate.
Ashcroft is set to announce his plans at a news conference today in Washington. At the NRA, which has lobbied to speed the process for gun transactions, spokesman Andrew Arulanandam said Wednesday: "We hope this is going to be something positive, obviously. We'll see."
Program Blocked More Than 156,000 Sales
The FBI clearinghouse enables authorities and gun dealers to run background checks on would-be buyers and weed out people who may be banned from owning a firearm, including felons, illegal immigrants, people who have been committed to a mental institution and others.
Started in late 1998, the program in its first 25 months blocked more than 156,000 illegal gun sales, according to an FBI report earlier this year. More than 18.5 million gun sales have been cleared in that time, with more than 70% of the purchases taking just seconds for approval while the buyer waited in the gun shop.
While the program has earned generally positive reviews for weeding out scofflaws, it has run into some problems. Several thousand felons are known to have slipped through the cracks, computer outages have crippled the system on occasion, and a law requiring that reviews be completed within three business days has sometimes forced the FBI to clear gun purchases "by default" because they were unable to track down certain information about the buyers.
The NRA, meanwhile, is upset because authorities have kept records of the gun transactions for up to 90 days in order to give the FBI time to check for fraud and abuse in the system.
Gun control opponents argue that by failing to destroy the records immediately after the transaction, the government is maintaining what amounts to an illegal nationwide licensing of law-abiding gun owners. However, the NRA lost that claim earlier this week when the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear its challenge to the record retention system.
But Ashcroft, who voted in the Senate in 1998 in favor of a measure that would have required the immediate destruction of the records, appears to offer a more sympathetic ear.
Soon after becoming attorney general, Ashcroft twice suspended a Clinton administration rule that required the record be kept for 90 days. The Violence Policy Center, a liberal advocacy group that supports gun control, sued Ashcroft earlier this month, arguing that his suspension of the rule was illegal and that it threatened to undermine the integrity of the background check system. That suit is pending.
Ashcroft Weighs Record-Keeping Change
Justice Department officials refused to discuss Ashcroft's plans Wednesday, but one source who asked not to be identified said that Ashcroft is considering ordering that records be retained for 45 days instead of 90.
That prospect worries gun control activists, who were already upset by a letter that Ashcroft wrote to the NRA last month saying that he believed the 2nd Amendment "unequivocally" protects an individual's right to bear arms.
"Forty-five days is just not enough time," said Mathew Nosanchuk, director of litigation for the Violence Policy Center. "If they're really proposing to cut it down to 45 days, that's really driving a stake through the heart of the instant check system. It prevents the FBI from conducting system audits to detect fraud and abuse."
Ashcroft is also considering an effort to speed up the background checks by making significant changes in the way requests are processed, according to another law enforcement source who asked not to be identified.
In about a dozens states that do not directly participate in the background check system, gun dealers contact "call centers" that contract with the FBI to initiate checks.
This process has sometimes slowed the checks, and Ashcroft has indicated that he wants to change the contracting system or do away with it altogether in order to speed the process, the source said.
But gun control supporters say they are concerned that any efforts to tinker with the system in order to speed approvals could also allow more illegal gun buyers to slip through.