Ashcroft's Russian Roulette

Last year, Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft tried but failed to get the U.S. Supreme Court to buy his theory that the 2nd Amendment allows pretty much anyone to buy pretty much any gun, a view the court has consistently if infrequently rejected.

Now Ashcroft has threatened California's top firearms control official with criminal charges if the state continues to use a federal databank to hunt down those making illegal gun purchases, as it has done for years. Ashcroft's latest decree is reckless and could emasculate this nation's gun laws, hamstring police and put the public at risk.

Since 1998, firearms dealers across the country have used the Department of Justice's National Instant Criminal Background Check System, or NICS, to check, supposedly within 30 seconds, whether a customer is prohibited from owning a gun because of, for example, a felony or a history of mental illness.

California also has used the system to check whether someone recently found by doctors to be mentally unstable -- and therefore barred from purchasing a weapon -- had earlier bought a firearm.

In addition, state law enforcement officials use this background check to determine whether police should return a weapon confiscated from an arrested person. The police are required to withhold a gun if, for example, they learn that the suspect had committed a crime in another state since he bought it.

These have been standard law enforcement practices in California for years.

Ashcroft wants to stop such practices, believing that a gun owner's right to privacy trumps public safety.

The federal Brady law, requiring the background check for handgun buyers, requires gun dealers to take one peek at an individual's criminal record. A buyer with a clean record takes the gun home. But if that same individual later commits a crime, is slapped with a restraining order or becomes mentally unstable, Ashcroft has decreed no one should know.

Ashcroft would force California law enforcement officials to play Russian roulette 7,000 times a year when they release a suspect for lack of evidence, spring a parolee from prison or discover that a judge has put a restraining order on a wife beater who has a firearm. Only, in this game, the bullets will be aimed at law-abiding citizens.

For the moment, California Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer and his firearms division chief, Randy Rossi, are standing firm, as they should, vowing to continue using the NICS database to protect Californians despite Ashcroft's vague threats of prosecution. Pressure from Sen. Dianne Feinstein's (D-Calif.) office may have prompted staffers from Ashcroft's and Lockyer's offices to agree to talk Thursday by telephone in an effort to end this impasse.

A large part of Ashcroft's responsibility is protecting the public, not undercutting laws that would help him do that job.

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