Ideology Reigns at Ashcroft Justice Department

DOJ Says Background Checks for Gun Buyers Are Off-limits to Sept. 11 Investigation, Once Again Amends Law by Executive Fiat

The Justice Department has acted to bar the use of background checks for gun purchasers in the terrorism investigations. People For the American Way President Ralph G. Neas called the move "yet another example of this administration and this attorney general amending our nation’s laws by executive fiat. In the context of the Ashcroft anti-terrorism investigation, this action is both hypocritical and unfathomable."

"John Ashcroft’s career is one long record of allowing ideology to trump the law," said Neas. "Now he’s at it again. It is remarkable, if not surprising, that he is bending the law to protect gun buyers from law enforcement scrutiny at the same time he is undermining a broad range of civil liberties protections in the name of fighting terrorism."

The New York Times reports today that under current federal law and regulations, records of background checks are retained for 90 days, and those records can 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." Pursuant to that authority, the Treasury Department’s Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms asked the FBI to check a list of 186 detainees against the background check records. The FBI began to do so and found at least two examples of detainees who had been approved to buy guns. But the next day, the FBI was told that such use of the background check records was impermissible and stopped its efforts.

Reportedly several FBI and law enforcement officials disagreed, and claimed that this action was a reversal of policy. The International Association of Chiefs of Police has protested, and Police chief Larry Todd of Los Gatos, Calif, a member of the group’s firearms committee, has called it "absurd and unconscionable." Matthew Nosanchuk, a former DOJ official who helped write many of the regulations, says the decision was wrong and not justified by the law and regulations.

As a Senator, John Ashcroft supported an amendment to the background check bill that would have required the records’ destruction immediately after making the checks and thus made the attempted investigative work impossible. That amendment was defeated. But the Times story suggests that the DOJ is expected to announce "soon" that it will start destroying the records within 24 hours, effectively adopting Ashcroft’s amendment across the board, as well as frustrating the use of the records regarding the terrorism investigation.

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