Attorney General Ashcroft
Misled Congress and the American People on Legality of Checking Terrorist
Gun Purchase Records
General John Ashcroft misled Congress and the American public when he
repeatedly stated that the Justice Department was legally prohibited from
checking gun purchase records in connection with the post-9/11 terrorism
investigation to determine if potential terrorists had purchased firearms,
a new General Accounting Office (GAO) report reveals. The Justice Department's
refusal to review the records received widespread press attention when
it was revealed by the Violence Policy Center (VPC) in December 2001.
The report, Gun
Control: Potential Effects of Next-Day Destruction of NICS Background
Check Records, reveals for the first time the existence of an October
1, 2001 memorandum prepared by the Justice Department's Office of Legal
Counsel (OLC). [The VPC has obtained a full copy of the memo.] The memo
concludes that the Federal Bureau of Investigation has the legal authority
to check approved gun purchase records to ascertain whether prohibited
persons bought guns in connection with the post-9/11 terrorism investigation.
The memorandum flatly contradicts Attorney General Ashcroft's insistence
that the Justice Department was legally prohibited from checking approved
gun purchase records in connection with the terrorism investigation.
"The OLC memorandum
is the smoking gun proving that Ashcroft grossly misled Congress and the
American people," states Mathew Nosanchuk, VPC litigation director and
legislative counsel. "Attorney General Ashcroft described the Department's
legal authority with the same accuracy that WorldCom reported its profits."
public and congressional criticism of the Justice Department's position,
the Department never disclosed the existence of the OLC memorandum. The
VPC has identified no less than eight separate statements to the news
media and in congressional testimony by Justice Department officials asserting
in unequivocal terms that the Department lacked the legal authority to
do precisely what the October 2001 OLC memo said was legal.
The report, which
examines the potential impact of the Ashcroft Justice Department's proposal
to require the destruction of approved gun purchase records within 24
hours, concludes that the destruction of records would have dire consequences
for public safety. Another key finding is that retained records were used
to initiate firearms retrieval actions, which take place when a felon,
fugitive, domestic abuser, or other prohibited person clears a background
check and law enforcement subsequently finds out they are prohibited.
In an astonishing 97 percent of retrieval cases that the GAO studied
over a six-month period, law enforcement would not have been able to retrieve
an illegally purchased firearm from a prohibited person under the shortened
retention period proposed by the Attorney General.
Adds Nosanchuk, "The
GAO report should put the final nail in the coffin of the Ashcroft Justice
Department's records-destruction proposal. The report leaves no doubt
that when it comes to enforcing the gun laws Attorney General Ashcroft
is not guided by facts, law, or public safety, but by blind allegiance
to the gun lobby."
The Violence Policy Center is a
national non-profit educational foundation that conducts research on violence
in America and works to develop violence-reduction policies and proposals.
The Center examines the role of firearms in America, conducts research
on firearms violence, and explores new ways to decrease firearm-related
death and injury.
Wednesday, July 24, 2002
Violence Policy Center
(202) 822-8200 x105