The following editorial appeared in today's Chicago Tribune:
Given the seriousness of the terrorist threat and the Justice Department's otherwise aggressive anti-terrorist campaign, Attorney General John Ashcroft's ban against using gun-owners' background checks in these investigations is puzzling. Add to that Ashcroft's long history of attempting to undermine or weaken gun-control laws, and his decision looks like a case of upside-down priorities.
Under federal law, Ashcroft's department keeps records of background checks on people who buy guns. As part of its probe into 1,200 people detained since Sept. 11, the FBI asked the Justice Department to compare the detainees' names with those records of gun purchasers to see if there are any matches. Justice officials refused on grounds that it was illegal to share such information or that doing so would violate the privacy rights of gun owners.
This dispute came to light Wednesday - ironically - as Ashcroft was giving the Senate a spirited defense of his department's wide-ranging tactics to track down terrorists, which have struck many as pushing the government's investigative powers to the limit.
In fact, most of the government's investigative tactics so far seem justified by the risk of additional terrorist attacks. And that is precisely what makes Ashcroft's refusal to let the FBI check gun-ownership records counterintuitive if not misguided.
The department keeps these records to conform with the so-called Brady Law that went into effect in 1998 and seeks to prevent people with criminal records from purchasing guns.
The gun lobby fought the Brady Law every step of the way. Even after it went into effect, opponents mounted a campaign to reduce the length of time the federal government could keep the records of the background checks. Originally the records were to be maintained for 180 days, and then that was cut to 90 days.
To gun-control opponents, including Ashcroft, any kind of record-keeping amounts to de facto "registration" of gun owners. Soon after taking over, Ashcroft reversed Justice's decades-old interpretation that the 2nd Amendment permitted gun ownership only as part of an organized militia, not as an individual right. Later last year, Ashcroft proposed, against the advice of the FBI, that records be kept only 24 hours. When he was a senator from Missouri, Ashcroft had introduced an amendment that would have required destroying the records immediately.
Both FBI officials and the organization that monitors implementation of the Brady Law do not believe that it prevents Justice from releasing the information for the purpose of enforcing other laws, including the ban against illegal immigrants owning guns.
Terrorists owning guns: If there is one area in which Justice ought to push the envelope in its investigations, this is it. Ashcroft ought to reconsider his position lest it call into question the seriousness of the government's anti-terrorist campaign - or his own sense of priorities.