WASHINGTON (AP) _ Attorney General John Ashcroft announced steps to improve an instant background check system designed to keep guns out of criminals' hands, but angered gun control advocates by proposing strict limits for keeping records on gun purchases.
Ashcroft said the government should keep records on people who tried to purchase firearms for no more than one business day instead of the 180 days now allowed by federal regulation.
The records are kept temporarily so that the FBI, which does the checks, can go back and look for fraudulent transactions or mistaken approvals.
Gun owner groups say keeping the records is an invasion of privacy; gun control advocates say more time for auditing is necessary to ensure that guns are not be sold to criminals.
Speaking at a news conference on Thursday, Ashcroft said he was trying to balance privacy concerns and the need to maintain the records for auditing purposes _ both are required by the landmark Brady gun law that requires background checks for gun buyers.
Ashcroft said the audits can be done instantaneously using technology.
His proposal stoked charges by gun control groups that Ashcroft was appeasing the National Rifle Association, a big contributor to Republicans.
``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.
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 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.
The proposal will be issued for public comment within 60 days.
``Gun dealers and criminals are the only Americans who will benefit,'' said Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y.
Ashcroft also said federal prosecutors will step up gun crime prosecutions. He ordered the FBI to increase the number of checks completed instantly and said states would get grants to fix problems with missing or incomplete criminal history records that are vital to integrity of the National Instant Criminal Background Check System.
Called NICS, the system electronically checks law enforcement records while gun buyers are waiting to make purchases. Felons, drug users, people subject to domestic violence restraining orders are among those prohibited from buying guns.
But some records are missing or incomplete. Gun dealers are permitted to sell guns if no post-arrest record can be found within three days.
Over 45,000 people with an open arrest were allowed to purchase guns last year because the three-day requirement was not met, Ashcroft said.
``Improving the criminal history records will decrease this number and it will speed up the approval process for law-abiding purchasers,'' he said.
About 70 percent of the checks take about 30 seconds. A small number take longer to allow more time to contact state and local authorities to check records.
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, according to the FBI.