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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

NRA Misfires on Federal Gun Registry

The head of the National Rifle Association misfires when he claims the president’s proposal to require background checks for all gun sales will result in a “massive federal registry” of firearms. Current law bars federal agencies from retaining records on those who pass background checks, and nothing in the president’s plan would change that.

Wayne LaPierre, chief executive officer of the NRA, criticized President Obama’s proposal for universal background checks in a Jan. 22 speech in Reno, Nev. He falsely equated the proposal to a de facto federal gun registry, an argument the NRA has made before.

LaPierre, Jan. 22: Obama wants you to believe that putting the federal government in the middle of every firearm transaction — except those between criminals — will somehow make us safer.

That means forcing law-abiding people to fork over excessive fees to exercise their rights. Forcing parents to fill out forms to leave a family heirloom to a loved one — standing in line and filling out a bunch of bureaucratic paperwork, just so a grandfather can give a grandson a Christmas gift. He wants to put every private, personal transaction under the thumb of the federal government, and he wants to keep all those names in a massive federal registry.

There are only two reasons for that federal list of gun owners — to tax them or take them.

It’s simply not accurate to suggest that Obama’s plan for universal background checks would result in a “massive federal registry” — which is currently barred by law.

The Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act, which was enacted in 1993, created the National Instant Criminal Background Check System. On its website, the FBI says that “more than 100 million such checks have been made in the last decade, leading to more than 700,000 denials.” The vast majority of those subject to background checks pass, and the records generated by those NICS checks are ultimately destroyed, as required by law and explained by the FBI in a fact sheet on the law.

FBI: The NICS is not to be used to establish a federal firearm registry; information about an inquiry resulting in an allowed transfer is destroyed in accordance with NICS regulations.

That’s because section 103(i) of the Brady Act specifically bars federal agencies from retaining “any record or portion thereof generated by the [NICS] system,” and it prohibits the “registration of firearms, firearm owners, or firearm transactions” of those who pass the background check.

In 1998, the FBI published the final rule implementing NICS. The NRA challenged the NICS regulations in court, claiming that the rules allowing the government to maintain an “audit log” for six months (later reduced by the Department of Justice to 90 days)  amounted to a de facto firearm registry, contrary to the Brady Act. The NRA suit was dismissed, but since 2004, Congress has inserted language in annual spending bills requiring the FBI to destroy firearm transfer records within 24 hours of approval — as Congress did most recently in fiscal year 2012.

A 15-page document released by the White House outlining the president’s gun proposals contains a plan to expand criminal background checks to include all gun sales and transfers “with limited, common-sense exceptions for cases like certain transfers between family members and temporary transfers for hunting and sporting purposes.” It makes no mention of changing the existing law to create a federal gun registry.

We asked the White House if the president’s proposal for universal background checks or any other proposal in the president’s plan would result in the establishment of a federal firearm registry. We were told the president’s proposal would not change existing law. It merely would bring all firearm transactions into the same criminal background check system.

— Eugene Kiely