Department of Justice Seal

Attorney General Transcript

News Conference - Gun Initiative/NICS
Wednesday, February 13,2002
DOJ Conference Center

ATTY GEN. ASHCROFT: Today I have the privilege of announcing four Department of Justice initiatives designed to reduce and punish gun crime.

   The first three initiatives are further steps in our continuing effort to improve the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, known as the NICS system, as we try to bar access to firearms by felons, by illegal aliens, and by others who cannot legally own firearms.

   The fourth initiative is a new tool, Project Sentry, to strengthen our ability to prevent and punish gun crimes in our schools.

   The NICS background check system was established in 1994 to ensure that those who purchase firearms are first subject to a background check. Since I became attorney general, we have looked at ways to improve the accuracy and efficiency of the NICS system. Today I am announcing three improvements to the NICS system.

   First, I'm instructing the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Immigration and Naturalization Service to use the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, or NICS, to deny gun transfers to those aliens who are prohibited from purchasing guns.

   Federal gun laws prohibit illegal aliens from receiving or possessing guns and ammunition. Unfortunately, NICS was not designed in 1994 to determine whether prospective purchasers are prohibited aliens. Despite the fact that all prospective gun purchasers are asked for their citizenship at the time of purchase, currently most aliens are not checked against INS databases to determine if they are legally in the United States.

   Today I am directing the FBI, which administers the NICS program, to work with the Immigration and Naturalization Service to check the immigration status of all non-citizens who are prospective gun purchasers. From this day forward, when a federally licensed firearm dealer places a call to the NICS system, the FBI will ask whether the prospective buyer is a citizen. If he or she is not, the call will be referred to the INS. The INS will search all of its databases to determine whether the alien is illegally or unlawfully in the United States. These more thorough procedures will help ensure that guns do not fall into the hands of illegal aliens. Illegal aliens who seek to buy guns unlawfully will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.

   As part of this first directive, I am also directing the FBI and the INS to take all appropriate steps to investigate any violations of law associated with an illegal alien's attempt to purchase a firearm.

   Where the NICS inquiry or NICS system determines that a purchase would be denied because the buyer is an illegal alien, the matter will be referred to investigators, who will examine whether the alien has made a false statement in violation of federal criminal law.

   If aliens have made false statements or a false statement in their attempted purchase, we will prosecute those individuals for those false statements. And we will take steps necessary to remove from this country illegal aliens who attempt to purchase guns unlawfully. Where the NICS system determines that a purchase should be denied because the buyer is an illegal alien, records of the request and denial will be referred to INS investigators to initiate appropriate removal proceedings.

   My second announcement today is that I am instructing the FBI to take steps to ensure that NICS background checks are able to determine more thoroughly and efficiently whether a prospective gun buyer is entitled to obtain firearms. Under the new system, calls that have previously been delayed calls will be routed immediately to a legal instruments examiner. The examiner will be able to review the gun buyer's full criminal history while on the phone with the dealer, and in many cases will be able to notify the dealer at once whether the transaction may be completed. The new system will increase the precision of proceed determinations while decreasing the number of delayed resolutions that increase the risk of firearms being turned over to a prohibited person. This improvement will increases the same-call resolution of the transactions from its current rate of 71 percent to 90 percent, so that we'll have higher accuracy and will resolve the issues in the context of the call with that higher rate of accuracy.

   The third NICS-related improvement today that I announce is our continued effort to assist states in updating their criminal history records upon which the NICS system relies. NICS background checks are only as accurate as the criminal history records on which they are based. One of the things that we have discovered in our review of the NICS system is that a number of states need to improve their criminal history records, especially records relating to mental illness adjudications and final dispositions of arrest charges.

   Many states lack the expertise or the resources that are necessary to transfer written documents into easily accessible computer databases upon which the NICS system relies. As a result, the NICS system occasionally locates a record that contains an arrest for an offense that would disqualify the individual from possessing firearms but is unable to determine how state prosecutors or courts disposed of the charges. This increases the risk that a firearm may be transferred to a prohibited person.

   On June the 28th of last year I ordered the Bureau of Justice Statistics to conduct a study of incomplete state criminal history records. Today the bureau has announced its preliminary findings. Based on the bureau's report, we will allocate $141 million to the National Criminal History Improvement Program, or NCHIP, over the next three fiscal years. These funds will be directed to ensuring that state courts improve their reporting of case dispositions. In addition, states may use the funds to automate older criminal history records. Further, in addition to the $40 million appropriated for NCHIP in fiscal year 2001, the president's proposed budgets will provide the program with $38 million in 2002 and $63 million in 2003. These funds will help make our records more complete and more accurate. These three initiatives together will increase the accuracy and efficiency of the NICS system in ensuring that we protect Americans by keeping guns out of the wrong hands.

   Finally, I am pleased to announce that the Justice Department is undertaking a new initiative as part of our Project Safe Neighborhoods, this initiative known as Project Sentry. Project Sentry is a vital federal-state project dedicated to prosecuting gun crimes committed at our nation's schools and dedicated to protecting juveniles from gun crime. The president has emphasized that America's war on terrorism must involve the combined resources of federal, state and local governments. Project Sentry applies the same approach to the problem of school-related gun violence. The initiative will provide every United States attorney's office in the country -- and that's a total of 94 U.S. attorneys offices -- with a new prosecutor who will serve as a Project Sentry coordinator. Each Project Sentry coordinator will help facilitate partnerships between federal, state and tribal governments. The resulting safe school task forces, which will involve law enforcement, community groups and schools, will help prosecute and supervise juveniles who violate federal and state firearms laws, will prosecute adults who illegally provide firearms to juveniles, and will promote school safety through community outreach efforts. This administration is committed to providing the resources needed to make Project Sentry a success.

   In addition to the $9 million that will be necessary to hire the Project Sentry coordinators, the Department of Justice is allocating $20 million to help fund the partnerships. The $20 million will be drawn from existing resources in the Community-Oriented Policing Services program, known as COPS, and from the Office of Juvenile Justice grants.

   One of the most important features of Project Sentry is its emphasis not just on prosecutions, but on protecting juveniles from gun crime. Later today I'll be attending a meeting of educators, school administrators and public safety personnel, a meeting sponsored by the Department of Education and other federal agencies. It's a meeting that will address how to help schools prepare for and respond to terrorist attacks. The participants have come from a number of countries, including Israel, Canada, Japan and Ireland. All of these countries are joining together to share their experiences and discuss techniques for securing the safety of their schools in the wake of terrorism -- terrorist attacks and other criminal violence.

   This Department of Justice is dedicated to improving the tools that we have to reduce criminal access to guns, prosecuting those who violate our nation's gun laws, and ensuring a safe learning environment for our children.

   These four steps announced today will assist us in achieving these goals.

   Thank you.

   Yes, sir?

   Q Mr. Ashcroft, have you gotten any credible leads in response to the FBI warning the other night? And what can you tell us about the two men detained near the Pentagon?

   ATTY GEN. ASHCROFT: The individuals detained near the Pentagon have been the subject of affidavits filed with the courts. I think it's rather complete, those affidavits, and I would refer you to those. We won't be making statements in addition to the court pleadings or proceedings. But I think there's a rather thorough account in what I would consider to be a narrative affidavit of the courts there.

   I'm not in a position to announce any specific leads from the alert issued by the FBI. I know that there have been individuals who have provided information, but I'm not sure the extent to which that information has proved to be useful.

   Yes, sir?

   Q Attorney General, has the alert gotten any more specific? There's a feeling, though people aren't saying so, that the alert is more pertinent to U.S. facilities outside the United States than inside the United States. Is it still worldwide, both domestic and foreign, or has the alert become more specific?

   ATTY GEN. ASHCROFT: We have not refined the alert to narrow its focus. The alert was issued, it regarded a rather specific time interval, and we felt that it contained the kind of information with which -- which we ought to share with both the American people and individuals around the world who would seek to assist us in curtailing terrorism. This administration believes that the public plays a very important role in protecting this culture and other cultures from terrorist attacks. And frankly, we commend members of the public who have been helpful. The alert was shared publicly with that in mind.

   Yes? I think I saw a hand over there.

Q Since the alert has been issued, we've seen some indications that law enforcement assets have been shifted around the country in the last 48 hours; for example, the shifting of FBI special agents in and out of Salt Lake. Can you comment at all about movement of personnel, maybe location or numbers of people moving?

   ATTY GEN. ASHCROFT: You know how clearly we have intended and carefully we have planned to make the Olympics a secure environment. We will continue to do everything possible to make the Olympics a secure environment. We believe that that is being done and are grateful for the way in which the Olympics have been conducted. I think it would be inappropriate, as staff from one time and another is either relieved or redirected, to draw conclusions based on those matters.

   Yes, sir?

   Q Have you cleared Lofti Raissi of any suspicion regarding the September 11th attacks? And if so, or if that suspicion has waned at all, can you say why he was held so long?

   ATTY GEN. ASHCROFT: First of all, let me thank our counterparts in Great Britain for their cooperation in every respect as it's related to the conduct of the investigation following September the 11th.

   I'm not in a position to make a comment about any other circumstances relating to Mr. Raissi.

   Yes, sir?

   Q On the same subject, though, Attorney General, the judge did say yesterday that there is no likelihood of terrorism charges being brought against him in the near future. How far would you accept the judge's determination?

   ATTY GEN. ASHCROFT: Well, I'll let the judge speak for himself. It's not the custom of this department to prognosticate on the potential of charges. If we do file charges, they would be announced, and the papers providing the basis for the charge would be filed with the court and also provide the basis for information regarding the charges.

   Yes, sir?

   Q General, the gun control group -- back of the gun issue -- have been critical of the Justice Department previously for not allowing the FBI to search purchase records against the list of the detainees post-September 11th. Do any of these proposals deal with that at all? Will you be able to retroactively go back and do those kind of searches, or is that not addressed here?

   ATTY GEN. ASHCROFT: We believe that the utilization of purchase records for purposes other than the auditing of the system is prohibited by the Brady Law, which was enacted in 1994. And for us to contravene that would be inappropriate. This department considers living within the limits of the law as one of its primary responsibilities.

   Yes, sir?

   Q To follow up, would you consider any changes to the law that would allow you to do that? That was another thing that was being called for.

   ATTY GEN. ASHCROFT: There are individuals in the Congress who are working to provide a variety of ways of making sure that we provide additional safety, and this department is always open to individuals and to proposals that we believe consistent with the rights expressed in the Constitution to safeguard the safety and security of individuals here in the country.

   Thank you very much.