Talk of embattled Department of Justice is sidestepped |

Talk of embattled Department of Justice is sidestepped

Patrick Parkinson, Of the Record staff

As debates rage about torture and "warrantless wiretapping," the first public comments from U.S. Attorney General Michael B. Mukasey on Thursday focused instead on instant background checks for gun buyers and keeping firearms away from the mentally ill.

"During my time in office, I want to continue to emphasize the broad-based cooperation between state and federal law enforcement," Mukasey told 33 attorneys general at the winter meeting of the National Association of Attorneys General at The Canyons. "[Sharing] information, whether it is from one government agency to another or from all of us to our citizens, is a vital part of being prepared against all threats."

Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff hopes to convince state lawmakers to cooperate with the federal government to report names of people banned from owning guns to the National Instant Criminal Background Check.

"This is a vital tool for enforcing federal and state firearms eligibility laws, allowing federal firearms licensees to do instant background checks on gun purchasers," Mukasey said. "It provides access to nationwide databases, ensuring that one state’s information about a warrant or other disqualifying information can be available when a prohibited person tries to buy a firearm in a different state."

Cooperation between state and federal agencies resulted in more names reported to the database since the shootings at Virginia Tech, which left 33 dead in April, Mukasey said.

"As the Virginia Tech tragedy made clear, it is vital [the database] have accurate and complete information on persons prohibited from possessing firearms because of mental health history," he said.

Thirty-two states had contributed information to the gun register as of Nov. 1, Mukasey said.

Still, convincing Utah’s pro-gun Legislature to adopt tougher laws could be difficult.

But those who judges deem mentally ill already cannot possess concealed firearms in Utah, Shurtleff explained.

The violent crime rate in Utah remains low, but officers are concerned about a spike in the number of rapes.

"[Violent] crime continues to present some of the greatest challenges for both state and federal officials," Mukasey said. "Our strategy includes funding for state and local law enforcement, enhanced prevention efforts and a crackdown on America’s most violent offenders."

State attorneys general spoke privately with Mukasey about how to curb illegal immigration in the United States, Shurtleff said.

"[Mukasey] has already met with the Mexican attorney general who seems very open to cooperation, but he told us and he told him he is worried about Americans bringing weapons into Mexico that are helping the drug cartel fight against his soldiers," Shurtleff said.

Shurtleff said he wasn’t surprised when President George W. Bush’s new attorney general didn’t discuss the beleaguered Department of Justice in his speech in Park City.

"I expected more of a deer in the headlights, because, all in all, of what he’s stepping into here," Shurtleff said.

The image of the justice department suffered under leadership from former U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez and there were morale issues when Mukasey took over the department in November and became America’s top cop.

Gonzalez was criticized by some attorneys general when he spoke to the group several months ago in Washington, D.C., Shurtleff said.

"I’m not going to judge [Gonzalez’s] performance, whatsoever," Shurtleff added in an interview after Mukasey spoke this week.

Mukasey, a former federal judge from New York City, is the 81st U.S. attorney general. After his speech, Mukasey did not take questions from reporters.

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