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Want to Know the Top Crime Gun? Tough Luck

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This week, for the fourth year in a row, the House Appropriations Committee approved language into the Science, State, Justice and Commerce appropriations bill (which funds the operations of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) for fiscal year 2007) blocking public access to previously available information on guns traced to crime. As in years before, the language was inserted by Representative Todd Tiahrt (R-KS), pictured below with NRA chief lobbyist Chris Cox celebrating a previous year's success in keeping the American public in the dark.

tiahrt and cox.jpg

Before the ban, the publicly available tracing data was used by city officials and law enforcement agencies to determine the sources of illegally trafficked firearms and identify the top guns traced to crime. When the info ban was first put in place for fiscal year 2004, it even banned the release of the number of guns manufactured in America. This was quickly reversed--because the gun industry wanted the information. The bill now goes to the House floor and then on to the Senate.

The non-disclosure language prohibits ATF from releasing information related to crime gun traces performed by the agency except in connection with a bona fide criminal investigation. The language also explicitly states that crime gun tracing data shall be "immune from legal process" and "not be subject to subpoena or other any civil action pending on or filed after the effective date of this Act in any State (including the District of Columbia) or Federal court...." This is to stop the information from being used in lawsuits against the gun industry--even though Congress last year passed legislation to bar such suits.

So in case you wanted to know what the top model of gun traced to crime in America is... Or how many assault weapons are traced to crimes... Or what Southern state supplies the highest volume of crime guns used in urban areas... Or what types of guns kids are carrying... Forget about it. We used to know all these things. But now we don't thanks to the gun lobby, the industry it protects, the Bush Administration, and Congressman Tiahrt from Kansas.

With the Tiarht language in place, a wide range of crime-fighting tools have been neutered. Here's one example. ATF used to publish a report called the Youth Crime Gun Interdiction Initiative. In the last version of the report, released in 2002, ATF described the purpose of compiling and releasing the information: "The reports provide extensive analyses of crime gun traces submitted in calendar year 2000 by law enforcement officials in selected cities throughout the country participating in ATF's Youth Crime Gun Interdiction Initiative. The analysis of a large number of individual traces from many similar jurisdictions helps identify consistent crime gun patterns that may not be apparent from information in a single trace or traces from a single jurisdiction or State. With information about patterns and trends, more violent criminals can be arrested more efficiently, more focused regulatory enforcement can be undertaken, and more gun crime and violence can be prevented." Oh well.

Independent, respected entities, including the National Academy of Sciences and a U.S. Court of Appeals, have supported release of the data to academics and the general public. In 2004, in Firearms and Violence: A Critical Review, a committee of the National Academy of Sciences recommended that "appropriate access be given to data maintained by regulatory and law enforcement agencies, including the trace data maintained by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms...for research purposes." Moreover, claims that release of tracing data could interfere with ongoing law enforcement investigations were roundly rejected by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit in 2002. In its opinion ordering release of the data that ATF sought to withhold under the Freedom of Information Act (before the Tiahrt language took effect), the court stated: "ATF's hypothetical scenarios do not convince us that disclosing the requested records puts the integrity of any possible enforcement proceedings at risk....ATF has provided us with only far-fetched hypothetical scenarios....In sum, ATF's arguments that the premature release of this data might interfere with investigations, threaten the safety of law enforcement officers, result in the intimidation of witnesses, or inform a criminal that law enforcement is on his trail are based solely on speculation." The court also noted that release of the data serves the public interest in that it provides a mechanism to evaluate ATF's effectiveness, helps control gun trafficking, and aids cities' ability to enforce their gun laws.

But keeping it secret serves the interests of the gun industry and the gun lobby--rather than the interests of law enforcement and public safety. And we know who always wins that battle these days.

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