Thursday, December 20, 2012

Silencer on the ATF

The semiautomatic rifle used to execute 20 children and 6 adults in Newtown, CT last week was a Bushmaster .223 AR-15 rifle.  If this model name and number sounds familiar, it may be because this same gun was the one used by Jacob Roberts at a mall in Oregon last week in his rampage.  Also, it was one of the several guns used by James Holmes when he killed 12 people and injured 58 others at a movie theater in Colorado this past summer.  This gun is popular with mass murderers because it can fire a lot of bullets really fast.  (Check out Bushmaster's awful ad campaign here.)

This same type of gun is hardly ever used in street robberies or drive-by shootings.  It’s just not very practical.  For those sorts of crimes, criminals tend to use pistols.  But, if you wanted to know what specific brands and models of guns are used most often by criminals in the United States, you can’t find out.   It’s not that this information isn’t collected by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms.  It is collected.  It’s just that the ATF is prevented by law from spending one penny of budgeted money to release the data.

You heard correctly.  The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms gathers data from police forces across the nation on the make and model of every gun seized in the investigation of a crime.  It then tabulates this data by crime type and gun type.  And then if files this information away somewhere because it is against the law for them to release it.

The Consumer Product Safety Commission collects data like this on tires and toys and appliances.  As soon as they spot an anomaly, they investigate.  And then, if there is cause, they issue an advisory or a recall.  In this way, dangerous products are kept off the shelves.  Sometimes, people injured by these dangerous products sue the manufacturers.  If they can prove negligence, they sometimes win cash settlements.

In 2004 the NRA got Representative Todd Tiahrt of Kansas to attach a rider to the Justice Department appropriations legislation.  It quickly became known as the Tiahrt Amendment and it has three main provisions.  The following description of the three provisions is from The Brady Campaign to Prevent  Gun Violence.

  • One Tiahrt provision severely limits the authority of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) to disclose crime gun trace data to the public under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), and bars admissibility of such data when victims bring lawsuits against the gun industry.
  • The second Tiahrt-sponsored appropriations provision codified the Bush Administration policy destroying certain National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) records after 24 hours.
  • The third Tiahrt appropriations rider bars ATF from implementing its proposed regulation requiring gun dealers to conduct annual inventory audits to address the problem of guns “disappearing” from gun shops with no record of sale. 

So, the ATF cannot (by law!) respond to Freedom of Information requests and must not provide data for lawsuits against the gun industry, cannot save Criminal Background Checks for more than 24 hours, and cannot force gun dealers to conduct audits of their inventories once a year.  Police groups and big city mayors have complained about the Tiahrt Amendments since 2004.  Clearly Representative Tiahrt and the NRA’s waterboys in Congress are worried about what the data might reveal.  Is it possible certain makes and models are preferred by criminals or mass murderers?  And is it possible some gun sellers are not serious about keeping guns out of the black market?  Could a jury find that gun manufacturers share some of the blame for America’s 30,000+ gun deaths each year?

Until the Tiahrt Amendments are repealed, we will never know.

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