Smoking gun

May 04, 2007

As Baltimore focuses greater resources on ridding the streets of illegal guns, it may find its effort stymied by a federal law that restricts release of gun tracing data. The provision makes it difficult for cities to identify trends and gun dealers who serve criminals, and it should be revised.

Named for its sponsor, Kansas Rep. Todd Tiahrt, the provision precludes the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives from releasing sensitive data that trace the origin of a gun except as they apply to a particular crime in an ongoing investigation. Mayor Sheila Dixon has joined New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg and 225 other mayors in opposing the law because they say it unfairly denies law enforcement officials critical data they could use to stem the flow of guns on city streets.

Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski and Rep. C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger, who sit on appropriations committees in Congress that are reviewing the Tiahrt amendment, should take the lead in making the information more easily available so law enforcement can better track trends and gun dealers who are the source of criminals' guns.

Baltimore police, for example, can get information on a gun's origins from the ATF when they request it for a specific weapon that may have been used in a crime. But if investigators want to compare patterns of gun sales with surrounding states or even counties, ATF won't release the corresponding information. City police would have to request it from each jurisdiction, which can be needlessly time-consuming.

Amendment supporters say greater release of the data would compromise criminal investigations, and they argue that police get what they need when investigating specific crimes. But mayors or senators or researchers - policymakers, in other words - don't have access to the same, often critical, information. The true beneficiaries are gun dealers whose guns have been used in crimes, because that information can't be used in state attempts to revoke their licenses under this law.

In defending the agency's policy on trace data, the ATF's acting director, Michael J. Sullivan, wrote that "nothing prohibits ATF from releasing our own reports that analyze trace-data trends that could be used by law enforcement." But such reports aren't made public.

Too much information can be a dangerous thing, but not when it comes to guns used in crimes.

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