For Release: Wednesday, July 24, 2002
Washington, DC – Attorney 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.”
Despite withering 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.”