Following the Firearms: Gun Violence in Minneapolis - Rules behind tracing guns a political football in Washington

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Listen: Following the Firearms: Gun Violence in Minneapolis pt. 4 of 4

MPR News presents the series "Following the Firearms: Gun Violence in Minneapolis," which looks at where guns are coming from, and the impact of gun violence in Minnesota's largest city. In this report, MPR’s Brandt Williams travels to the Washington DC-area and examine how gun trace data have become the center of a national political fight over guns.

This is the fourth in a four-part series.

Click links below for other reports in series:

part 1:

part 2:

part 3:


2012 RTDNA Murrow Award, Radio - Large Market, Region 4 / Audio: News Series category

2012 National Association of Black Journalists Salute to Exellence Award, RADIO - Investigative category

2011 NBNA Eric Sevareid Award, first place in Series - Large Market Radio category

2011 Minnesota AP Award, first place in Series/Special - Radio Division, Class Three category

2012 MNSPJ Page One Award, first place in Online - Best use of Multimedia category


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BRANDT WILLIAMS: Minneapolis Police officers recovered 759 guns last year, and they sent electronic trace requests on each one here to the ATF National Tracing Center in Martinsburg, West Virginia.

CHARLES HAUSER: Last year we did about 340,000 trace requests for guns recovered by law enforcement in crimes.

BRANDT WILLIAMS: Charles Hauser is the Chief of the Tracing Center. He says the center gets more than 1,000 requests every day. And contrary to popular belief, there is no computerized database the ATF can search to find a gun owner. The ATF uses 20th century technology, the telephone, to first call the company that made the firearm.

CHARLES HAUSER: We have to have them look into their records and tell us what they did with it, and we follow the chain of distribution of the firearm all the way until there's a retail purchase.

BRANDT WILLIAMS: Hauser says that's where the ATF stops the trace. He says after they find the first buyer, it's up to local police to connect the rest of the dots to a crime scene.

The Tracing Center can also search paper records from gun stores that have gone out of business to help them trace a gun. Millions of records have been digitized, but they are not organized into a searchable system because Congress prohibits the ATF from doing so.

Hauser says the restrictions are spelled out in a series of directives called appropriations riders attached to the ATF's funding, which tell them what the center can't spend money on.

CHARLES HAUSER: The goal, as I see it for Congress, is to ensure that we don't construct through some process here an artificial registration system that begins to infringe on the right to bear arms.

BRANDT WILLIAMS: These restrictions began in 2003 created by a now former Republican Congressman from Kansas named Todd Tiahrt.

According to a report by the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service, the first Tiahrt Amendments were passed at a time when ATF trace data were being used by gun control advocates and some municipalities to file lawsuits against gun manufacturers and gun dealers who showed up as frequent suppliers of crime guns.

The first Tiahrt Amendments forbid trace data from being used in civil suits against gun dealers. They restricted the release of ATF trace data solely to law enforcement agencies involved in so-called bona fide criminal investigations.

The amendments were supported by the ATF and the Fraternal Order of Police. They were opposed by gun control advocates, local police officers, and some former ATF agents.

JOE VINCE: Tiahrt is, in simple terms, nuts.

BRANDT WILLIAMS: Joe Vince was with the ATF for nearly three decades before he retired. He says the Tiahrt Amendments stop the flow of regional trace data ATF used to share with police departments, regardless of whether they requested the information for an investigation.

Vince says without trace data from neighboring cities, police departments lost a resource to help them nab interstate gun traffickers or rogue gun dealers supplying weapons to criminals in their jurisdictions.

JOE VINCE: If you arrest a criminal with a firearm, you've taken that firearm off and that criminal. If you arrest a trafficker, on average in the year, you're taking 56 guns off the street that would have went to criminals. If you arrest a source where the firearms are coming from, you're taking well over 600 firearms from hitting the street and being used by criminals.

BRANDT WILLIAMS: Over the years, Congress has clarified the language in the Tiahrt Amendments. Some say the amendments never actually prohibited the ATF from sharing trace data with law enforcement.

In 2008, Congress modified the amendments to state that Tiahrt does not prohibit the release of general statistical data on gun trafficking. And in 2010, the amendment said ATF can share firearm trace data among law enforcement agencies that aren't involved in an investigation.

However, the ATF is still prohibited from sharing the data with law enforcement if the data would blow the cover of an undercover officer or identify an informant.

Regardless of the changes, opponents of the Tiahrt Amendments, including groups such as Mayors Against Illegal Guns and the International Association of Chiefs of Police, still want them abolished. But gun rights groups and other supporters say they are necessary to help preserve the constitutional rights of gun owners.

In addition to restricting access to ATF trace data, the Tiahrt Amendments require the Justice Department to destroy records of buyers who pass FBI background checks within 24 hours.

Tiahrt also prohibits the ATF from requiring gun dealers to conduct annual inventory checks. Republican Minnesota Congressman John Kline says the Tiahrt Amendments help prevent the federal government from overreaching its authority.

JOHN KLINE: There is I think legitimate fear about turning more and more information about gun owners over to the federal government. And so again, I resist that.

And this isn't just a Republican issue or a Democrat issue. There is very strong bipartisan opposition to the federal government, to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms and Explosives for taking this step.

BRANDT WILLIAMS: A bill with bipartisan support called the ATF Modernization Act is currently working through Congress. The act would change how the ATF assesses penalties to license gun dealers who violate the law by requiring finds to be based on the nature and severity of the violation.

The act would allow a firearms dealer to sell off his inventory for 60 days after he loses his license and the act would also require the ATF to prove that a dealer willfully mishandled gun records before sanctioning and shutting down the dealer.

Minnesota Democratic Congressman Keith Ellison opposes the bill. He says it would let negligent gun makers and sellers off the hook.

KEITH ELLISON: Quite frankly, I mean, these bills are designed to try to protect gun manufacturers from any level of accountability for the products that they sell. And this is truly too bad. I mean, it's the kind of thing that anybody who doesn't want to get shot needs to stand up against in a bold and aggressive way.

BRANDT WILLIAMS: Gun rights lobbying groups, such as the NRA and Gun Owners of America, support measures such as the Tiahrt Amendment and the ATF Modernization Act. Gun Owners of America's offices are located in Springfield, Virginia, just outside Washington, D.C.

Director Larry Pratt says the Modernization Act doesn't go far enough to curtail the power of the ATF. He says ATF agents regularly hassle gun dealers over minor violations. In fact, Pratt says the ATF shouldn't be allowed to keep any data on people who buy guns.

LARRY PRATT: Look at Wikileaks. The government leaks like a sieve. There's no way they have any way of seriously protecting the information on gun owners that they're obtaining and keeping illegally. We are just amazed that the Congress hasn't gone farther in restricting what this agency does.

BRANDT WILLIAMS: Pratt's group wants to abolish the ATF, but he says that probably won't happen any time soon. As the debate over gun restrictions continues, so does the flow of illicit firearms into Minneapolis.

Yet police point out that their strategies of searching for guns obtained illegally and trying to get them out of the hands of felons are paying off. Brandt Williams, Minnesota Public Radio News Springfield, Virginia.


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