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Democrats question lack of terror gun checks

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The Bush administration defended itself Thursday against criticism from some Democrats who questioned why the Justice Department has refused to let the FBI use a computer database to determine whether any of the hundreds of people detained after the September 11 attacks had purchased guns.

Several lawmakers said the refusal to conduct the gun checks -- reported in Thursday's New York Times -- flies in the face of the administration's promise to do everything it can to undermine suspected terrorists.

"I'm a little befuddled," said Sen. Charles Schumer, D-New York. "We're looking for new tools in every direction. I support most of those. But when it comes to the area of even illegal immigrants getting guns and finding out if they did, this administration becomes weak as a wet noodle."

Attorney General John Ashcroft, appearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee, said he does not believe the administration has the authority to conduct such checks, based on how the law was written by Congress.

Schumer challenged that view, saying the law allows for such checks through what is called the National Instant Check System . But accepting the administration's argument, he then asked why the Justice Department didn't ask for a change in the law when it presented its wish list of anti-terrorism initiatives to Congress shortly after the attacks.

Ashcroft -- a long-standing opponent of gun control -- did not answer directly, but said he would be happy to "review" any legislation Schumer might draft on the issue.

At a separate news briefing, White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer reiterated Ashcroft's point that the administration lacked the authority to conduct the checks.

"This is a Janet Reno regulation put in by the Clinton administration that this administration is following," Fleischer said. But Fleischer also suggested the administration is not interested in changing the law.

The attorney general, Fleischer said, "does not view it as a limit on investigative powers in the aftermath of 9/11."

Schumer, however, told Ashcroft that the gun checks on those being held could be "an important tool that you could use to help make us safe."


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