Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft, aligning himself squarely with the National Rifle Assn., moved to have the FBI begin destroying government records on millions of gun purchases almost immediately after the weapons are sold.
The decision, which still faces final review, would severely curtail the amount of time the FBI can spend auditing records on gun purchases to look for evidence of fraud and corruption among gun buyers and sellers.
Currently, the FBI retains the gun records for up to six months, auditing about 10% of the transactions to determine whether felons or others banned from buying weapons were allowed to get one. That auditing window will narrow to a single business day under Ashcroft's plan.
The move, which drew cheers from the NRA and jeers from gun control supporters, was part of a broader package of gun reforms that Ashcroft said should help keep weapons out of the hands of criminals while speeding the legitimate purchase of guns by law-abiding citizens.
The FBI began operating a massive nationwide clearinghouse in 1998 that reviews nearly 10 million gun purchases a year, with most transactions cleared in a matter of seconds once it is determined that the prospective buyer has no criminal record or other problems that would ban the purchase of a gun. The system has blocked more than 156,000 illegal gun sales.
Ashcroft said that while keeping guns out of the hands of violent or dangerous people is a clear goal of federal law, so is protecting the privacy of individuals. "Balancing those interests is important," and retaining gun purchase records for months at a time threatens to violate that right to privacy, he said.
The FBI has insisted in the past that it needs at least 90 days to properly audit gun transactions. But Ashcroft rejected suggestions that drastically shortening the review period will hurt the government's ability to catch improper purchases. He said that "real-time auditing," without delays, can "best guarantee the integrity" of the system.
Ashcroft's decision came just three days after the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear the NRA's claim that the FBI was illegally maintaining transaction records.
The NRA has argued for the last several years that the federal government's months-long maintenance of gun transaction records amounts to a national registry of firearms owners.
NRA spokesman Bill Powers said Ashcroft's move to eliminate the records after a single business day "is certainly a tremendous step in the right direction. This goes a long way to ensuring the rights to privacy of citizens who have a right to purchase a firearm."
But he said gun owners will not be completely satisfied until the government stops retaining transaction records for any length of time, even for a day.
"Those records should immediately be destroyed," Powers said. "What business is it of the federal government to keep files and information about individual citizens who have violated no laws?"
Gun control groups were incensed by Ashcroft's decision, which went even further than many opponents had feared in scaling back the FBI's ability to hold on to the gun records.
"We took President Bush at his word when he said he was going to crack down on crime, and instead the first significant action his administration has taken in gun enforcement is to tie the hands of the FBI in investigating corruption among gun dealers," said Matt Bennett, a spokesman for Americans for Gun Safety, an advocacy group in Washington.
"This is a fulfillment of the NRA's wish list," said Mathew Nosanchuk, director of litigation for the Violence Policy Center, a liberal group that favors gun control.
"Ashcroft is a life member of the NRA, and this demonstrates once again that he is elevating bare-knuckled politics above the law. He's handing the NRA on a silver platter what they couldn't get before the Supreme Court just a few days earlier."
Ashcroft's proposed change is now open for public comment before it comes back to him within the next several months for final approval.
The FBI has generally been keeping gun records for 180 days. Starting next week, however, the FBI will begin retaining the records for just 90 days under a rule change that was put in place by former Atty. Gen. Janet Reno but was suspended twice by Ashcroft.
Nosanchuk said the Violence Policy Center, which sued the Justice Department earlier this month over the 90-day rule's suspension, may consider further legal action to try to block the one-day window from taking effect if Ashcroft gives final approval.
In addition to the one-day change, Ashcroft directed federal prosecutors around the country, particularly those in Los Angeles and 18 other districts with significant gun crime, to commit more lawyers and resources to prosecuting illegal gun transactions.
He said that 113 new federal prosecutors, positions dedicated several months ago to stepped-up gun enforcement, will now also be asked to commit themselves to prosecuting illegal firearms sales.
Since 1994, the FBI has referred for prosecution 217,000 cases involving efforts to illegally buy guns, but only 294 people have been convicted, Ashcroft said. "We can, we should, and we must do a better job of preserving the integrity of our gun laws," he said.
Ashcroft said he also wants the FBI to process requests more quickly. He said 90% of all gun purchase requests should be given a near-instant "proceed" or "denied" response, which would be a substantial jump from the current 71% response rate.
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