Gun Control Group Sues Attorney General

By Mark Mead | July 7, 2008 | 8:27pm EDT

( - A gun control advocacy group filed a lawsuit Monday against Attorney General John Ashcroft, alleging he is illegally delaying a Clinton administration firearm purchasing regulation from being written into the books.

The Violence Policy Center filed its suit in a U.S. District Court, claiming Ashcroft "illegally suspended a final Justice Department regulation implementing the Brady Law's National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) for firearm purchases."

The VPC asserts Ashcroft violated the Department's Administrative Procedure Act, which requires that all parties in the regulatory process are involved.

"He took an action in conflict with a 62-year-old precedent with the Supreme Court," said Mathew Nosanchuk, litigation director for the VPC, "and he directly contradicts the current position of the Department of Justice."

The Clinton-era rule would require the FBI to keep private information of firearm purchasers for 90 days, a number that would be down from the current 180-day period.

The 90-day figure was reached during Clinton's negotiations with Congress on a bill that would have ended the retention of firearm owner information altogether.

Twice this year the Justice Department has delayed the imposition of the rule, citing the need to further review the regulation and the checking system.

"We have reverted back to the 180 days until we have sufficient time to review the NICS system," said Mindy Tucker, director of public affairs at the Department of Justice.

But Nosanchuk believes the delays are an attempt by the attorney general to throw the regulation out completely.

"It gave us a clear indication that what he was really intending to do here was to repeal the regulation entirely," he said. "But you can't ignore or fail to implement a final regulation just because you don't like it.

"Basically, we need to have some security audit in place to make sure people aren't using and abusing the system," he added.

Meanwhile, privacy supporters have been up in arms about background check information, saying if private information is in the FBI's hands and not immediately purged, then it has little difference from gun registration.

Last year, an NRA lawsuit that would require the FBI's immediate disposal of individuals' private information was dismissed by the U.S. District Court in Washington, and is currently being appealed to the Supreme Court.

Nosanchuk sees no comparison with the retention of background check information and registry of firearms.

"It can't possibly be a gun registry because this audit law has no information about what type of gun has been purchased," Nosanchuk said. "The only information the FBI has about you for this limited time period is your name and the fact that you tried to buy a gun."

The VPC sharply opposed Ashcroft's nomination to attorney general, saying if he was elected, the National Rifle Association would be "running the Justice Department."

This harsh criticism was reaffirmed in the wake of the delay of imposing the regulation. "This delay shows that Mr. Ashcroft's interests lie with the NRA, not with the safety of the American people," Nosanchuk said.

The NRA "is celebrating Ashcroft taking the position that the Second Amendment protects the individual ownership of firearms for lawful purposes, which could result in the invalidation of the entire set of federal gun control laws - and that's deeply troublesome to us," he said.

In Ashcroft's letter to NRA executive director, James Jay Baker, the attorney general said, "When I was sworn as Attorney General of the United States, I took an oath to uphold and defend the Constitution. That responsibility applies to all parts of the Constitution, including the Second Amendment."

The NRA had no specific comment on the matter, but Executive Director James Jay Baker, in a May 19 speech at the organization's national convention, said Ashcroft would "run the [NICS] system as Congress intended so that only criminals, not honest citizens, are denied guns."

When asked about the future of the lawsuit, Nosanchuk said that it is "very strong on the merits."

The Justice Department currently is not making any comments on the suit.

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