Lawmakers ask VP Biden for access to gun data

Joe Biden, Eric Holder
Vice President Joe Biden, with Attorney General Eric Holder at left, speaks during a meeting with victims' groups and gun safety organizations in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building on the White House complex in Washington, Wednesday, Jan. 9, 2013. Biden is holding a series of meetings this week as part of the effort he is leading to develop policy proposals in response to the Newtown, Conn., school shooting.

A joint statement from legislators asks Vice President Joe Biden to support the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's ability to research gun violence.

The statement is signed by Rep. Betty McCollum, D-Minn., and three other House Democrats. It says while the law does not legally prohibit data collection on gun violence, "it has a chilling effect on the CDC Center for Injury Prevention and Control which compiles and analyzes data in order to help protect people from deaths and injuries both accidental and intentional."

Next week, Biden is expected to reveal anti-gun violence proposals that likely include a ban on sales of assault weapons, limits on high-capacity ammunition magazines and universal background checks for gun buyers.

The group Mayors Against Illegal Guns also would like Biden to recommend an end to a set of rules they say hamstring local law enforcement efforts to get guns out of the hands of criminals. The rules restrict public access to gun data collected by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

Infographic: Implementation of gun laws
ATF report: Firearms tracing in Minnesota
Following the Firearms: Gun Violence in Minneapolis

The rules are known as the Tiahrt Amendments, and are a set of riders attached to ATF funding. The Tiahrt Amendments came up during a regional gun summit in Minneapolis yesterday, when Mayor R.T. Rybak called for doing away with them.

Betty McCollum
U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum in a photo taken Oct 24, 2012, at the Stillwater City Hall. McCollum and three other House Democrats are asking Vice President Joe Biden to support the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's ability to research gun violence.
MPR Photo/Anthony Kwan

The amendments were created 10 years ago by then-Rep. Todd Tiahrt, R-Kansas. There are several restrictions, but foremost, the Tiahrt amendments forbid the ATF from sharing detailed gun trace data with the public. They also prevent the ATF from compelling gun sellers to conduct inventory checks, and prevent the ATF from using gun trace data in lawsuits against gun dealers.

Before Tiahrt, anyone could obtain ATF trace information by filing a Freedom of Information Act request, which meant they could find out the names of gun stores that were the source of crime guns. That led to lawsuits against gun sellers and gun makers. That trace data is available to law enforcement agencies, and they can't share it with the public.

Tiahrt also restricts the ATF from doing anything that would create a database of gun owners. Some legislators and Second Amendment rights groups have argued that gun registration is a step toward government confiscation of firearms.

The ATF cannot digitally organize or archive of the millions of names they receive each year who have purchased a gun from a federally licensed dealer. Instead, pictures are taken of the records and kept on film at its tracing center in Martinsburg, W.Va.

Gun summit
Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak, center, was joined at the podium by Midwest mayors, police chiefs and prosecutors to talk about the group's conversation around the fight to end gun violence Thursday, Jan. 10, 2013 during a Regional Gun Summit at The Depot Renaissance Minneapolis Hotel.
MPR Photo/Jennifer Simonson

So, how does the ATF trace a gun when there's no database to search through? The ATF's tracing center receives about 1,000 requests daily from law enforcement agencies around the country and sometimes from outside the U.S. The trace request includes a firearm's make, model, serial number. The ATF must contact the firearm manufacturer who tells the ATF where that gun was shipped to. They then search the microfilm, sometimes through boxes of paper forms to find out which gun store originally sold the gun and to whom.

For more on the tracing center and Tiahrt Amendments, including a commentary from former Rep. Todd Tiahrt, read the MPR series Following the Firearms: Gun Violence in Minneapolis.

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