Attorney General John Ashcroft announced a series of initiatives Wednesday aimed at closing several loopholes in the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, which tracks the backgrounds of prospective gun buyers.
The central aim of the changes, Ashcroft said, is to ensure that illegal aliens — who are prohibited by law from either buying or possessing guns in the United States — do not acquire firearms.
"Despite the fact that all prospective gun purchasers are asked for their citizenship at the time of purchase, currently most aliens are not checked against INS databases to determine if they are legally in the United States," he said.
Ashcroft said that NICS, created as a result of the Brady Law in 1994, does not have the capacity to check the status of aliens. Under the proposed changes, the Immigration and Naturalization Service will work in concert with the Federal Bureau of Investigation to review all gun purchase requests by non-citizens to determine their immigration status.
"From this day forward, when a federally licensed firearms dealer places a call to the NICS system, the FBI will ask whether the prospective buyer is a citizen. If he or she is not, the call will be referred to the INS. The INS will search all of its databases to determine whether the alien is illegally or unlawfully in the United States," Ashcroft told reporters. "Illegal aliens who seek to buy guns unlawfully will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law."
Only aliens who have achieved immigrant status are eligible to purchase and possess firearms, a senior Justice Department official said later. There are exceptions to this rule, however, as in the case of hunting arms.
In addition to the new FBI-INS cooperative effort, Ashcroft has ordered the FBI director to increase the immediate "proceed" or "deny" responses to 90 percent of all gun checks. If a "delay" response is received, it will be routed to an NICS processor, who will review relevant records and provide advice to the gun dealer on how to proceed.
Ashcroft also said the Justice Department would provide assistance to states to update and automate their criminal history files.
Justice has also unveiled a new initiative dubbed "Project Sentry," which sends new prosecutors to every U.S. Attorney's office who will work to establish "Safe School" task forces in their community. The ultimate aim is prosecution and supervision of juveniles who violate firearms laws, and prosecution of adults who provide such arms to minors.