Reauthorize the Tiahrt Amendment

Public access to gun trace data — the information law enforcement uses to track firearms from manufacturer to the retail purchaser — is advocated by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, his coalition of mayors and gun control organizations, while being vigorously opposed by law enforcement.

Several years ago Congress wisely passed, as part of an appropriations bill, the so-called Tiahrt Amendment. Named for its sponsor, Rep. Todd Tiahrt (R-Kan.), the amendment restricts solely to law enforcement access to and use of this sensitive crime-fighting data that is maintained by the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF).
Congress took this important measure because public disclosure and misuse of the data can interfere with ongoing criminal investigations and jeopardize the lives of law enforcement and witnesses.

The best argument for restricting access is Bloomberg himself. Last spring Bloomberg had the New York City Police Department improperly — perhaps illegally — obtain trace data from ATF not for use in a criminal investigation, but rather, for use in preparing a civil lawsuit. The data was given to private investigators who conducted so-called sting operations of out-of-state federally licensed firearms dealers, without the knowledge of ATF or even the city’s own police department. As a result, Bloomberg actually interfered with as many as 18 ongoing criminal investigations, jeopardizing the lives of law enforcement officers, informants, witnesses and others. The Department of Justice investigated the actions of the mayor’s P.I.s and in a strongly worded letter admonished the city against engaging in similar conduct because it could “interrupt or jeopardize ongoing criminal investigations.”

In 2002, Bloomberg’s own police commissioner, Ray Kelly, urged the Department of Justice to oppose the public disclosure of trace data sought by Chicago Mayor Richard Daley for use in civil litigation against members of the firearms industry precisely because it would “compromise critical law enforcement investigations and endanger the lives of police officers and members of the public.”

Protecting the integrity of criminal investigations and the lives of law enforcement and witnesses is why the Department of Justice, ATF and law enforcement groups, such as the national Fraternal Order of Police, support restricting public access to trace data — a move that has put them squarely at odds with gun-ban lobbyists like Kristen Rand, legislative director of the Violence Policy Center, who has stated, “The primary legislative objective of the entire gun-violence-prevention movement is removing the trace-data limits.”

Lending more weight for keeping this data restricted is the fact that tracing requests are a law enforcement tool and in no way indicate criminal wrongdoing on behalf of firearms dealers. As the ATF has repeatedly stated, “The appearance of [a licensed dealer] or a first unlicensed purchaser of record in association with a crime gun or in association with multiple crime guns in no way suggests that either the federal firearms licensed dealer or the first purchaser has committed criminal acts. Rather, such information may provide a starting point for further and more detailed investigation.”

Opponents of the Tiahrt Amendment claim it restricts law enforcement access to trace data and their ability to share that data with others in law enforcement. That is simply false. In a recent op-ed, ATF Acting Director Michael Sullivan stated, “Let me be clear: Neither the congressional language nor ATF rules prohibit the sharing of trace data with law enforcement conducting criminal investigations, or place any restrictions on the sharing of trace data with other jurisdictions once it is in the hands of state or local law enforcement.”

Bloomberg and other big-city mayors want firearms tracing data for harassing civil litigation against members of the firearms industry. Gun control groups need this data to advance their agenda.

When it authorized restrictions on public access and use of gun trace data, Congress correctly understood that this sensitive information was a crime-fighting tool, always intended solely for use by law enforcement and that, in the wrong hands, it could be recklessly misused. Those legitimate concerns are still valid today. Congress should continue to put public safety and the lives of law enforcement ahead of gun control politics and reauthorize the Tiahrt Amendment.

Keane is senior vice president and general counsel of the National Shooting Sports Foundation Inc., a firearm industry trade association.