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Correction to This Article
This article incorrectly implied that federal law prohibits people younger than 21 from buying firearms from licensed dealers. That is true of handguns, but the minimum age for purchases of rifles and shotguns from licensed dealers is 18.
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Industry pressure hides gun traces, protects dealers from public scrutiny

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Since 1992, more than 2,500 guns recovered by police and tied to crimes in the Washington area have been traced back to their original sale at Realco Guns in Forestville, Md. The total is four times that of the dealer with the next highest number of gun traces.

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Pierce's analysis "blew everybody away" at the ATF, recalled Joseph R. Vince Jr., then deputy chief of the firearms division. Law enforcement might be able to reduce crime by focusing on a relative handful of gun dealers.

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The Clinton administration seized on the findings to encourage police to request a trace on every gun they confiscated. In 2000, Treasury Secretary Lawrence H. Summers, who oversaw the ATF, announced "intensive inspections" of the 1 percent - 1,012 gun stores.

The inspections detected serious problems. Nearly half of the dealers could not account for all of their guns, for a total of 13,271 missing firearms. More than half were out of compliance with record-keeping. And they had made nearly 700 sales to potential traffickers or prohibited people. More than 450 dealers were sanctioned, and 20 were referred for license revocation.

The ATF proposed tougher rules, such as requiring dealers to conduct regular inventories to detect lost or stolen guns. The gun industry opposed the rule, calling it a step toward a national registry of gun ownership.

Lawmakers and groups such as the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence used the tracing data to identify the top 10 "bad apple" gun dealers. That angered gun store owners and manufacturers, who argued that selling traced guns does not prove wrongdoing.

The industry turned its anger into action.

For years, the ATF had been releasing tracing data that was at least a year old. A Freedom of Information Act lawsuit pushed for contemporaneous data, but the ATF balked because it felt that the release of real-time trace data could threaten investigations. The standoff landed in the Supreme Court.

In February 2003, before oral arguments, the NRA persuaded Rep. George R. Nethercutt (R-Wash.) to add a provision codifying the time delay into a 544-page omnibus spending bill. In a dramatic move, the high court canceled arguments. The case eventually was tossed out.

Next, the gun lobby moved to take the trace data out of public circulation altogether. In July 2003, Tiahrt introduced his amendment, saying, "I wanted to make sure I was fulfilling the needs of my friends who are firearms dealers."

Tiahrt - who lost in this year's Republican Senate primary - said he also was lobbied by the Fraternal Order of Police. "They believed it would allow criminals to track down who undercover officers were," Tiahrt said. But FOP Executive Director James Pasco Jr. said the union played no role in drafting the amendment. "We were not there before the fact," he said. "We were supportive after the fact."

An appeals court in Chicago ridiculed the undercover argument, saying it was one of several "far-fetched hypothetical scenarios" offered to oppose releasing the data. Although the FOP supported the Tiahrt amendment, police chiefs across the country have opposed it as an impediment to local law enforcement.

In 2007, mayors led by New York's Michael R. Bloomberg attacked the amendment, saying it shielded dealers who broke the law. Armed with trace information from before the ban, New York filed civil suits against more than two dozen dealers in Georgia, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Carolina and Virginia. The city hired investigators to do undercover stings for illegal gun sales. Twenty-one dealers accepted court monitoring of their businesses.

Tiahrt and the NRA said the lawsuits compromised 18 ATF investigations. However, ATF associate chief counsel Barry Orlow said none was compromised.

During the 2008 campaign, Barack Obama promised to repeal the Tiahrt restrictions on local police access to national trace data. When the administration passed its budget last year, it expanded police access but also tightened restrictions on public disclosure.

Research editor Alice Crites contributed to this report.


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