In a decision assailed by gun-control advocates as a gift to the National Rifle Association, Attorney General John Ashcroft said the administration would propose that such records be held for just one business day after a sale.
Currently, such records may be held by governmental and law enforcement agencies for up to 180 days. Next week, that will be halved - to 90 days - under a Clinton administration rule that the new administration did not challenge.
But the attorney general said Thursday the administration intends to propose that the holding time be restricted to a single day.
"We believe we can have that kind of accurate auditing in a very quick time frame," he told a news conference. "The intent of the law is to protect the privacy of legitimate gun purchasers" and to have the ability to audit gun purchase records to check for fraud and abuse.
Gun control groups and Democrats criticized the changes, saying they would weaken the landmark Brady law and would make it more likely that people prohibited from buying guns would get them.
"Ashcroft's priorities clearly lie with pleasing the National Rifle Association, not protecting the American public," said Mathew Nosanchuk, director of litigation for the Violence Policy Center.
Rep. John Conyers of Michigan, ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, called it "another example of the Bush administration's catering to the gun lobby."
The National Rifle Association has strongly opposed the government's policy of keeping such records, saying it amounts to compiling a national registry of gun owners.
The NRA sued the Justice Department to have the records disposed of immediately after the background checks were conduted. The suit was dismissed, and the Supreme Court on Monday refused to hear an appeal.
On Thursday, the NRA called Ashcroft's move a "step in the right direction."
"The federal government has no business keeping files of personal information on lawful Americans who clear the NICS (instant background) check," said James J. Baker, executive director of the NRA's Institute for Legislative Action.
Ashcroft, while a U.S. senator representing Missouri, voted in favor of an amendment that sought instant destruction of background check documents. The amendment was defeated.
The National Instant Criminal Background Check System electronically checks millions of law enforcement records while gun buyers are waiting to make their purchases. Felons, drug users, people subject to domestic violence restraining orders are among those prohibited from buying guns.
About 70 percent of the checks take about 30 seconds. A small number take longer, possibly days, to allow more time to contact state and local authorities to check records. About 95 percent of all checks are done within two hours.
More than 18 million checks have been conducted since the background check system began in November 1998. More than 156,000 people have been denied guns as a result of the checks; 66 percent of those denied were felons, according to the FBI.
After the checks are completed, records have been kept to give the FBI time to look for fraud and abuse in the gun-purchasing system.
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