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April 23, 2009

Firearms Trace Data Is Not Public Information

There are good reasons for preventing firearm tracing data from becoming public information. Doing so protects the lives of law enforcement officers and also the integrity of undercover operations that may have been in place for weeks or even months. Restricting access also prevents the misuse of the data to bring nuisance lawsuits, as New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg did when he launched his own private sting operation against out-of-state firearms retailers and interfered with up to 18 federal investigations for which he was chastised in a letter from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

For these reasons and others, legislation called the Tiahrt Amendment rightly protects gun ownership information from being released to the public, while at the same time allowing law enforcement to access and share the data for their investigations.

Introduced by Congressman Todd Tiahrt (R-KS) in 2003, the legislation has been renewed every year since then and has the support of the Fraternal Order of Police. Even New York's police commissioner, Ray Kelly, opposed the public release of such sensitive information, saying in a 2002 letter to Attorney General John Ashcroft, "The release of trace information . . . seriously jeopardizes not only . . . investigations, but also the lives of law enforcement officers, informants, witnesses, and others."

(When discussing tracing, it's important to note that a traced firearm is not an indicator of wrongdoing on the part of either the retailer who sold the firearm or the individual who legally purchased the gun, even though some inaccurately leap to that conclusion, as did Mr. Bloomberg in testimony before Congress.)

Despite all these reasons, New York's anti-gun senator Charles Schumer recently called for the repeal of the Tiahrt Amendment so that trace data can be made public.

At the same time, Mr. Schumer called on the Obama Administration to extend the time period for storing an individual's firearm purchasing records. Currently, such records of law-abiding gun owners must be destroyed within 24 hours, but Mr. Schumer would like the purchasing records of gun owners to be retained for up to 90 days. With each gun owner having to pass a federal background check and retailers required to keep records signed by the purchaser for up to 20 years, law enforcement already has all the information it needs to trace firearms sales to the first retail purchaser, so there is no need for holding onto these records longer than current law provides.

What the 90-day holding period does do is create a federal registry of firearms purchasers, something Congress has clearly forbidden.

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