WASHINGTON -- For five years, the National Rifle Association and its allies have successfully lobbied Congress to limit the ability of local police to access federal gun trace data. Now, by moving to remove those limits and increase the ability of local officers to track so-called crime guns, Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski is venturing into what is rapidly emerging as the latest battlefield in the war over gun rights.
A provision first approved in 2003, when Republicans controlled Congress, sets tight controls on how the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives may share its gun data with local police departments. But with Democrats in charge, that law has become the target of an aggressive new campaign by gun control activists, who aim to kill it.
The effort puts the Maryland Democrat at the center of a high-profile gun control fight for the first time in her 20-year Senate career, just as the gun debate is evolving away from ownership rights and toward public safety concerns.
Groups such as New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg's new Mayors Against Illegal Guns, the International Association of Chiefs of Police and other law enforcement organizations say the 2003 restrictions make it harder for local police to track the flow of illegal firearms through their communities.
"One of the lessons that we learned after 9/11 was that you need police officers to be able to connect the dots," said John Feinblatt, Bloomberg's criminal justice coordinator. "You need people to be able to share information."
But the Bush administration, the National Rifle Association, the National Fraternal Order of Police and other supporters of the current law contend that making the gun data more widely available could jeopardize investigations and endanger police.
"You can find Web sites now that show pictures and information about police informants," said Rep. Todd Tiahrt, the Kansas Republican who introduced the restrictions in 2003. "If the mayors are successful, there will be other Web sites about undercover officers."
Breaking the barrier
Enter Mikulski, now preparing to shepherd through her first spending bill as the new chairwoman of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice and Science. She has removed the provision from the legislation, which is to be debated tomorrow by her panel.
"I'm on the side of law enforcement, particularly the local guys," Mikulski said in an interview. "And they have been very clear that this has been a barrier between them and the ATF. ... I want local law enforcement to have every federal tool possible to be able to fight crime in their own communities."
Baltimore Mayor Sheila Dixon and Police Commissioner Leonard D. Hamm oppose the restrictions, as do the chiefs of police in Montgomery and Prince George's counties and the Maryland Municipal League Police Executives Association.
It is unclear whether the effort to keep the provision, known as the Tiahrt Amendment, out of the final legislation will succeed. Sen. Richard C. Shelby, the senior Republican on Mikulski's panel, has said that he will attempt to put the restrictions back into the bill when the full Appropriations Committee considers it this week.
Gun control advocates could be facing an uphill battle. A companion effort in the House of Representatives to allow a freer flow of gun trace information has been unsuccessful.
"We'll debate it, we'll duke it out and we'll see what happens," Mikulski said. "I believe I'll prevail."
A matter of access
The conflict centers on access to the database that the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives has compiled on guns found at crime scenes. On request by a local law enforcement agency, the bureau's National Trace Center will investigate the gun's history, checking the serial number against records kept by manufacturers, distributors and dealers to determine when, where and by whom it was purchased.
The bureau reports its findings to the requesting agency and adds them to its own records, which contain data on millions of crime guns.
The Tiahrt Amendment, which has been written into every Justice Department spending bill since 2003, prohibits the bureau from releasing information from the database unless a law enforcement agency or prosecutor certifies that it will be used solely in connection with a bona fide criminal investigation or prosecution.
In practice, opponents say, this means that a local police department can learn the history of the gun it has recovered and little else. Scott Knight, chairman of the firearms committee of the International Association of Chiefs of Police, is one such critic.
"Someone goes into a convenience store in my city, uses a gun and commits a crime, I can get information on that gun from the ATF," said Knight, the police chief in Chaska, Minn. "I cannot find out if the same supply source provided five, two, three, six guns in my neighboring communities."