The State-Journal Register

July 26, 2002

Durbin study: Destroyed gun-purchase records may pose public threat 


WASHINGTON - Sen. Dick Durbin has gathered ammunition for one of his causes with the release of a federal study that finds potential dangers in a plan to destroy gun-purchase records within 24 hours.

Durbin, D-Ill., said the General Accounting Office study, which he requested, shows that a plan advanced by Attorney General John Ashcroft "could leave more than 450 guns each year in the hands of individuals who should never have been allowed to have them in the first place."

The proposed change would "make it that much easier for felons, drug dealers, fugitives and would-be terrorists to threaten our neighborhoods," said Durbin, an opponent of the plan.

Ashcroft proposed last year that the government destroy records of background checks within 24 hours after determining a sale is legal, rather than preserving records for 90 days as is the current practice. The Justice Department has the authority to implement the plan without congressional approval.

Durbin said getting rid of the records so quickly "would restrict law enforcement's ability to enforce existing gun laws."

Under the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act, licensed gun dealers must check with the FBI or a state authority to make sure a prospective purchaser of a firearm is not prohibited from owning one.

The 8-year-old law is meant to keep guns away from felons, fugitives, unlawful-drug users, undocumented immigrants and others prohibited from owning them.

The proposed changes would require law enforcement to destroy the records of each background check the first business day after notifying a gun dealer the sale is legal.

In its 39-page report, the non-partisan GAO said the FBI has drafted plans that would address most of the potential effects of the Ashcroft proposal. However, the report goes on to say the Ashcroft changes would "adversely affect some aspects of current (gun check) operations, which would have public safety

For example, the FBI would lose "certain abilities" to reclaim guns that the agency later discovered were illegally purchased, GAO said.

During a six-month period, the FBI used retained records to track down 235 firearms that were acquired illegally. If the Ashcroft policy had been in place, the agency would have lacked the records to find 228 of those guns, the report said.

The GAO also said the proposal could lengthen the time needed to perform background checks and place additional burdens on state and local courts. The policy also could make it more difficult for agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms to inspect gun dealer records, GAO said.

Justice Department officials did not return phone calls seeking their response to the GAO report.