NRA plans to sue DOJ over gun-owner registry

The National Rifle Association plans to file suit next week against the Justice Department if DOJ turns on a computer system that would store data about individuals who purchase guns.

The FBI plans to go online with the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) Nov. 30, as required by the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act of 1993. Under the system, gun dealers will submit names via computer or telephone to NICS, which will run the names against records on fugitives, people who are subject to restraining orders, deported felons, drug abusers, people charged with domestic violence and records stored by the Immigration and Naturalization Service and the Defense Department.

The FBI, which expects NICS to handle an estimated 11.4 million background checks a year, plans to keep records for up to six months on people who are approved to buy guns. The database will include a person's name, date of birth, sex, race, state of residence and the type of gun purchased. But NRA officials say the "national registry" of gun owners infringes on privacy rights and said last week that if DOJ does not change its plan, the NRA will fight the agency in court.

"In our view, the federal government has no business snooping in on people— on who's buying a gun.... There's no reason for it," said Bill Powers, director of public affairs at the NRA.

The FBI, in a document released late last month, argued that it must compile the database of legal gun owners because the "audit log" will help investigators "determine whether potential handgun purchasers or [firearms dealers] have stolen the identity of innocent and unsuspecting individuals or otherwise submitted false identification information in order to thwart the name-check system."

The FBI also claims the log will help the agency perform quality-control checks on the system. "We need to make sure there's some system integrity," said James Kessler Jr., chief of the NICS program office at the FBI. Kessler said the records will not amount to a gun registry and will not include address information or the serial numbers of guns and that the data cannot legally be used for any purposes other than those specified by the Brady Act.

Powers argued that the FBI does not need the database because it could directly investigate gun dealers' records if they believe a dealer has submitted a false name.

But Robert Walker, president of Handgun Control Inc., said the database will enable investigators to more easily pinpoint legal gun purchasers who may be buying guns to sell to convicted criminals. (Handgun Control is chaired by Sarah Brady, wife of James Brady, the White House press secretary shot in 1981 during an attempted assassination of then-President Ronald Reagan.)

Walker said keeping records longer than the six months proposed by the FBI would improve crime-fighting by allowing investigators to detect a wider pattern of questionable gun transactions. "We believe that at a minimum those records should be kept for a period of five years," he said.

The NRA may have difficulty winning a suit on constitutional grounds, said Eugene Volokh, acting professor at UCLA Law School and a specialist in constitutional and technology issues. The Second Amendment states that "the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed," but the amendment mentions nothing about keeping records on legitimate gun buyers, Volokh said. "My tentative thinking is that this [database] does not violate the Second Amendment," he said.


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