A BuzzFlash Guest Commentary
July 15, 2002
Guns and Books
Joe Sudbay, Public Policy Director, Violence Prevention Campaign
When the issue is guns, the Bush war on terrorism quickly finds itself taking strange and tortuous turns to avoid offending its dark masters in the gun lobby. The most recent example involves government records, and can be summed up with a descriptive and bizarre bumper sticker slogan: guns don’t kill, books do.
Faced with the question, "Which is more dangerous, a terrorist with a book or a terrorist with a gun?" most Americans would opt for the gun. Most Americans except for the Bush Administration’s leading law enforcement officer, pro-gun, pro-NRA Attorney General John Ashcroft.
Two headlines tell the story. In December 2001, The New York Times reported, "Justice Dept. Bars Use of Gun Checks in Terror Inquiry." Last month, the Associated Press reported, "FBI visits libraries to monitor reading habits of those it suspects of terrorism ties."
After the September 11th attacks, the FBI accessed the audit logs of the Brady Law’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) to see if suspected terrorists had been purchasing guns in violation of the law. The FBI believed that it had the legal authority to do this because the guns would have been illegally purchased. However, soon after this process began -- and after the FBI determined that at least two individuals on the terror watch list were gun purchasers -- the Attorney General corralled the FBI and ended their inquiry. Since then, the records have been off limits to FBI personnel.
Instead, agents are being dispatched to America’s bookstores and libraries to see what terror suspects are reading. FBI agents were granted the power to obtain information related to "books, records, papers, documents, and other items" through the USA Patriot Act, passed in the wake of the September 11th attacks. The Bush Administration apparently made sure this new power was clearly defined in the new law. Yet despite its belief that the FBI lacked the authority to check the gun records, the Bush Administration and John Ashcroft have never sought similar authority to see if terrorists had purchased guns. So while FBI agents may be able to discern if terrorists’ reading lists include copies of Soldier of Fortune and American Rifleman, agents lack the authority to see if they ever used this information and actually attempted to purchase a weapon.
Rather than offend the NRA -- which spent $500,000 on Ashcroft’s behalf in his failed 2000 Senate re-election bid -- the attorney general has chosen to protect the perceived Second Amendment "rights" of terrorists. Apparently the American Library Association lacks the NRA’s clout with the Attorney General: the First Amendment is undoubtedly trumped by the Second.
Or as an essay titled "Freedom vs. Security" in the July 8, 2002, edition of Newsweek succinctly observed: "The FBI is finding out all it can about the 1,200 people rounded up since September 11 -- except whether they have ever bought firearms. It's not that the government doesn't have that information, but the Justice Department will not share it because of an NRA-sponsored law that says that information about people buying guns -- even illegal immigrants! -- can never be shared with anyone. Ashcroft defends this policy. Perhaps someone should remind him that we are at war."
Perhaps someone should also remind Mr. Ashcroft and President Bush that the interests of the American public should take precedence over the interests of their gun lobby patrons.
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