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The "Tiahrt Amendment" on Firearms Traces: Protecting Gun Owners' Privacy and Law Enforcement Safety

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

For over a decade, cities and anti-gun organizations sought access to confidential law enforcement data on firearms traces, both for use in lawsuits against the firearms industry and for use in questionable studies used to support their goals. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (BATFE) compiles these records when it traces firearms in response to requests from law enforcement agencies.

Starting in 2003, the U.S. Congress passed increasingly strong language to keep this information confidential. The legislation—a series of "riders" to the appropriations bill that funds BATFE—is widely known as the "Tiahrt Amendment," after its sponsor, former U.S. Rep. Todd Tiahrt (R-Kan.). That provision was made permanent in 2006 as a part of the fiscal 2007 Appropriations bill to fund the Justice Department.  In 2009, the provision was amended to further strengthen the protections for undercover law enforcement operations and confidential informants.

Despite complaints from anti-gun activists, there are many good reasons for continuing to keep this information confidential:

  • Releasing the information serves no useful purpose. The Congressional Research Service has repeatedly said "firearm trace data may be biased" and "cannot be used to test for statistical significance between firearm traces in general and the wider population of firearms available to criminals or the wider American public.”[1] These limitations exist because the "tracing system is an operational system designed to help law enforcement agencies identify the ownership path of individual firearms. It was not designed to collect statistics."[2]
  • Traced guns aren’t always “crime guns”; firearms may be traced for reasons unrelated to any armed crime. The BATFE trace request form lists “crime codes” for traffic offenses and election law violations, among many others.
  • Trace information remains available for law enforcement use. The permanent version of the Tiahrt amendment ensures that trace data is available to federal, state, and local agencies "in connection with and for use in a bona fide criminal investigation or prosecution" or for use in administrative actions by BATFE—the principal agency responsible for overseeing the conduct of federally licensed firearms dealers. The language and history of the Gun Control Act are clear: Congress always intended to keep this information confidential, and to allow its use only for legitimate law enforcement purposes. The firearms trace database includes information such as the agency requesting a gun trace, the location from which the gun was recovered, and the identity of the dealer and original retail buyer.
  • Both BATFE and the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) oppose release of trace data. In fact, BATFE has fought for years in the federal courts to keep trace records confidential, because they contain information (such as names of gun buyers) that could jeopardize ongoing investigations—not to mention law enforcement officers’ lives. For example, a suspected gun trafficker could search publicly released information for names of "straw purchasers" he had used to buy handguns, or for traces requested on guns he had sold. That information could lead him to names of officers, informants and witnesses against his crimes. (View commentary by FOP President Chuck Canterbury from April 24, 2007)

NRA is committed to ensuring confidentiality of sensitive law enforcement information, and strongly opposes any effort to repeal the Tiahrt Amendment or any effort by the executive branch, or by state or local governments, to avoid its restrictions.

Resources


 [1] Congressional Research Service, Gun Control: Statutory Disclosure Limitations on ATF Firearms Trace Data and Multiple Handgun Sales Reports 3 (June 30, 2006).

[2] Congressional Research Service, Assault Weapons: Military-Style Semiautomatic Firearms Facts and Issues (May 13, 1992).

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