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.

After gun industry pressure, veil was draped over tracing data

Rep. Todd Tiahrt (R-Kan.) introduced the amendment that blocked gun tracing data.
Rep. Todd Tiahrt (R-Kan.) introduced the amendment that blocked gun tracing data. (Rick Carioti)
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By James V. Grimaldi and Sari Horwitz
Sunday, October 24, 2010

Under the law, investigators cannot reveal federal firearms tracing information that shows how often a dealer sells guns that end up seized in crimes. The law effectively shields retailers from lawsuits, academic study and public scrutiny. It also keeps the spotlight off the relationship between rogue gun dealers and the black market in firearms.

Such information used to be available under a simple Freedom of Information Act request. But seven years ago, under pressure from the gun lobby, Congress blacked out the information by passing the so-called Tiahrt amendment, named for Rep. Todd Tiahrt (R-Kan.). The law removed from the public record a government database that traces guns recovered in crimes back to the dealers.

"It was extraordinary, and the most offensive thing you can think of," said Chuck Wexler, director of the Police Executive Research Forum, a nonprofit group for police chiefs. "The tracing data, which is now secret, helped us see the big picture of where guns are coming from."

The amendment also kept the data from being used by cities and interest groups to sue the firearms industry, an avenue of attack modeled after the lawsuits against tobacco companies. "They were trying to drive a stake through the heart of the [gun] industry," said Lawrence Keane, general counsel for the National Shooting Sports Foundation. "It took an act of Congress to stop the litigation."

To break through the federal secrecy imposed by the Tiahrt amendment, The Post obtained hundreds of thousands of state and local police records and did its own tracing and analysis. To develop Maryland statistics, The Post took records of handgun sales from a state database and cross-referenced them against lists of gun serial numbers from police evidence logs in the District and Prince George's County. For Virginia, The Post gathered records of gun traces from a State Police database.

The National Rifle Association and other gun rights activists say releasing the tracing data unfairly tainted honest businesses by demonizing legal gun sales. Tiahrt and defenders of his amendment say it was backed by a national police union and the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, which wanted the database to be kept secret to protect undercover officers.

But Bradley A. Buckles, ATF director at the time, said his agency did not ask for the amendment. "It just showed up," he said. "I always assumed the NRA did it."

The NRA said the amendment protects gun owners and manufacturers. The data were being "used to push a political agenda," said Chris W. Cox, executive director of the NRA Institute for Legislative Action. "None of these individual dealers or companies was going to be able to withstand the avalanche of lawsuits and being held literally responsible for crime."

The proposal surprised some members of the House Appropriations Committee when it came up for a vote in July 2003. As a result, it barely passed, 31-30, though the committee was full of NRA supporters such as Rep. Frank R. Wolf (R-Va.), who voted no because he was troubled at being "caught flat-footed and blindsided."

After the vote, Rep. James P. Moran Jr. (D-Va.) objected. "It was not the subject of hearings. It has no support from law enforcement. It has no support from Attorney General [John] Ashcroft. It really serves to protect only the most corrupt gun dealers at the expense of all other legitimate gun dealers."

Tracing began after the Gun Control Act of 1968, which requires licensed dealers to collect certain information when a firearm is sold. A buyer must affirm that he or she is at least 21 and not a felon, a fugitive, an illegal immigrant or mentally ill. Dealers must list the information on Form 4473, with the firearm's serial numbers, to allow police to trace guns.

For three decades, tracing was used mostly to help police catch criminals linked to recovered guns. But in 1995, Professor Glenn L. Pierce of Northeastern University analyzed ATF tracing data and discovered that a tiny fraction of gun dealers - 1 percent - were the original sellers of a majority of the guns seized at crime scenes - 57 percent.

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