John Ashcroft's First Year as Attorney General

Gun Control

A lifetime member of the National Rifle Association, Ashcroft has overturned the longstanding position of the Justice Department - one that has been repeatedly upheld by the courts - in order to embrace an interpretation of the Second Amendment so broad that it threatens gun control and law enforcement efforts. Ashcroft announced his decision in a May letter to the NRA. The letter has already been used to challenge a conviction in a criminal case involving illegal handgun possession by a Texas man who was under a restraining order.76

In addition, top Justice Department officials halted efforts by the FBI to access gun purchase records that could have been used to determine whether any of the people detained after Sept. 11 had recently purchased firearms. This decision was made even after Al Qaeda training manuals were found in Afghanistan terrorist bunkers that explicitly directed followers to purchase firearms while in the United States and after the FBI, in an initial check of 186 detainees, found at least two examples of detainees who had been approved to buy guns.77 In addition, the ATF found that 34 guns seized in crimes had been bought at some point by people on the detainee list.78 The Justice Department interpreted the law as permitting the information gathered by background checks to be used only for denying gun purchases and for no other purpose.

Ashcroft had earlier dismayed many law enforcement officials by announcing in June that he would require the FBI to "protect the privacy" of gun dealers and buyers by erasing records of firearms transactions within 24 hours of purchase. Current law allows the records of background checks to be retained for 90 days and be used "for the purposes of investigating, prosecuting, and/or enforcing violations of criminal or civil law that may come to light during N.I.C.S. [National Instant Criminal Background Check System] operations."79 In 1998, as a senator, Ashcroft voted for an amendment that would require destruction of such records immediately after background checks were completed, but that effort was defeated.80

In mid-December, Senators Kennedy and Schumer pressured Ashcroft to preserve the gun purchase records to aid in the investigation of potential terrorists and suspend the change in the policy, but the Justice Department refused.81 The International Assocation of Chiefs of Police, the nation's largest group of law enforcement executives, called this decision "absurd and unconscionable" and stated that "the decision has no rational basis in public safety…If someone is under investigation for a terrorist act, all the records we have in this country should be checked, including whether they bought firearms."82

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