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New provision put weapons records out of public reach

Saturday, February 14, 2004

WASHINGTON -- The government no longer is releasing records tracking the source of firearms used in crimes, a concession to the gun lobby approved by Congress last month.

The change was enforced for the first time last week when the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives turned down Freedom of Information Act requests made by The Associated Press and others for certain gun records.

The change bars the release of any information that was gathered regarding gun dealers and forces the ATF to more quickly purge information obtained in background checks of buyers. Law enforcement agencies still would have access.

The measure was added at the request of Rep. Todd Tiahrt, R-Kan., to the big spending bill for multiple government agencies that was approved by Congress. The Bush administration, gun groups and other supporters said it was needed to ensure police investigations were not compromised by the release of data and to protect gun dealers from those who would use the information to unfairly tar dealers.

When a gun is used in a crime, the ATF traces the weapon back to the dealer where it was purchased.

The media used the data and audits on gun dealers to trace the rifle used in the Washington-area sniper shootings to Bull's Eye Shooter Supply in Tacoma, Wash., which had a history of lost guns.

For Chicago, the trace data are the heart of the city's liability lawsuit against "nuisance" gun dealers, said Benna Ruth Solomon, the head of the city's appeals division. The Supreme Court sent the city's lawsuit seeking the trace data back to the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals.

Gun dealer liability is an ongoing issue in Congress. Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, has introduced a bill that would protect gun dealers and manufacturers from liability lawsuits like Chicago's.

Solomon said Chicago believes it can still get the gun trace data it was seeking since Congress only prevented the ATF from spending money to disclose the information and Chicago said it would pay.

Republican Sen. John McCain called banning release of the information an attack on the Freedom of Information Act and said it was "absolutely appalling."

"This information is not top secret data that jeopardizes our national security or hinders law enforcement," the Arizona senator said during debate in the Senate. "We cannot have a government that operates in secret and refuses to release information that shows where criminals have obtained a gun."

But Tiahrt spokesman Chuck Knapp said disclosing the information could "jeopardize ongoing investigations which could endanger law enforcement officers' lives." According to supporters, criminals could learn they were being investigated if weapon information were publicly disclosed.

The new law also requires the ATF to purge its records of background checks within 24 hours, rather than keeping them for 90 days. Gun-rights advocates say keeping the records for three months amounted to a gun registry.

The FBI Agents Association opposed the 24-hour purge rule, saying it would let improper gun sales slip through the cracks. They cited a report by the General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress, that 228 of 235 illegal gun sales between July 2001 and January 2002 took more than one day to detect.

Cox said gun dealers have to retain records of gun sales for 20 years, meaning there is a safety net through which mistakes can be fixed.

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On the Web:

Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives: http://www.atf.gov

Brady Center To Prevent Gun Violence: http://www.bradycenter.org

National Rifle Association: http://www.nra.org


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