WASHINGTON – Attorney General John Ashcroft said Thursday that his proposal to immediately destroy government records of people who buy guns won't mistakenly help criminals get them illegally.
Other "records that are maintained can be used to detect the illegal purchases," Ashcroft told the Senate Judiciary Committee, responding to a General Accounting Office report released earlier in the week.
Ashcroft last year suggested shortening from 90 days to no more than one business day the time during which the government keeps records on people who try to purchase firearms.
But the GAO, Congress's watchdog agency, said that one-day destruction of records would mean that the FBI, which conducts background checks on people who buy guns, would not be able to go back and check its work to look for fraudulent transactions or mistaken approvals.
Only seven out of 235 illegal gun sales between July 2001 and January 2002 were noticed after one day, the GAO report said.
The National Instant Criminal Background Check system, called NICS, electronically checks law enforcement records while gun buyers are waiting to make purchases. Felons, drug users and people subject to domestic violence restraining orders are among those prohibited from buying guns.
Gun rights groups say keeping the records is an invasion of privacy; gun control advocates say more time for auditing is necessary to ensure that guns are not being sold to criminals.
Ashcroft said he was trying to balance privacy concerns and the need to maintain the records for auditing purposes -- both of which are required by the landmark Brady law that requires background checks for gun buyers.
But some records are missing or incomplete. If new information shows up within three months that proves the gun purchase should have been denied, the FBI calls local police and has the gun purchaser tracked down and the weapon confiscated.
The FBI wouldn't be able to do that if the gun purchase records are immediately destroyed, Sen. Edward Kennedy told Ashcroft.
"Your proposed policy would be removing an important tool" from law enforcement, said Kennedy, D-Mass.
However, Ashcroft said NICS would still have the firearm dealer information and government agencies like the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms could still track down illegal gun purchases through those records.
Going through the records that are maintained by gun dealers would allow ATF and other enforcement agencies "to correct those situations where guns were illegally purchased or inappropriately purchase," he said.
Ashcroft also continued to insist that the FBI cannot legally search NICS records to determine whether any of the Sept. 11 terrorist or detainees had bought guns.
Kennedy first questioned him on the issue back in December, but Ashcroft said he hadn't changed his mind. "Are you saying the FBI couldn't look through that to find out whether terrorists bought guns?" Kennedy asked, incredulously.
"The FBI doesn't have the authority under the Brady law to use those records for criminal investigative purposes," Ashcroft replied.