GOP Discovers The Value Of Crime Gun Traces After Years Of Suppressing Them

July 08, 2011 12:50 pm ET — Chris Brown

Sen. Chuck Grassley

After spending the last seven years supporting legislation broadly suppressing crime gun trace data, congressional Republicans are now seeking to use gun trace data as a tool in their investigation of the failed Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) operation Fast and Furious.

During the Fast and Furious investigation, ATF agents lost track of guns that are still unaccounted for, some of which ended up in the hands of Mexican cartels. House Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-CA) and Senate Judiciary Committee Ranking Member Chuck Grassley (R-IA) are interested in figuring out where crime guns recovered in Mexico came from to determine if they're related to the Fast and Furious program.

Many in law enforcement think figuring out where a gun comes from can be a helpful tool, but Congress instituted the Tiahrt Amendments seven years ago that restrict the release of crime gun trace data collected by the ATF. These restrictions apply even to requests made by members of Congress such as Rep. Issa and Sen. Grassley.

In a letter, Mayors Against Illegal Guns asked House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) to end the Tiahrt restrictions. From the letter:

To understand the scope of the operation and the number of guns sold during the investigation, Senator Grassley and Chairman Issa sent a letter on June 21, 2011 to the Ambassador of Mexico to the U.S., Arturo Sarukhan, requesting the serial numbers of all firearms "submitted to the U.S. eTrace system" and "recovered in substantial violent crimes" and any other firearms that officials in the Mexican government "believe may be connected with Operation Fast and Furious." Senator Grassley and Chairman Issa have contacted most law enforcement agencies in Arizona with similar requests.

This data is indeed important to understanding which Mexican crime guns were traced back to dealers in the United State who were cooperating with Fast & Furious. It is also a fact that ATF itself maintains eTrace and has immediate access to all of the data Chairman Issa and Senator Grassley have requested from the Mexican government and Arizona law enforcement, including the serial numbers of guns recovered in violent crimes and submitted for tracing as well as the results of each trace.

Unfortunately, as Senator Grassley pointed out in a June 16th letter addressed to ATF Deputy Director Kenneth Melson, the Tiahrt Amendments prohibit ATF from releasing trace data, even to members of Congress who are conducting oversight of ATF. Thus, Chairman Issa and Senator Grassley find it necessary to request it from the Mexican government and Arizona law enforcement officials.

Police officers like Joseph Bielevicz of the Pittsburgh Police Firearms Tracking Unit have long recognized the value of crime gun trace data to prevent gun trafficking and gun violence, but have faced obstacles to collecting the necessary data. In a Pittsburgh Post Gazzette op-ed titled "The NRA abets gun violence," Bielevicz wrote:

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms maintains a database which could provide a wide variety of valuable trace information with just a few keystrokes. But the NRA's allies in Congress have successfully passed laws which limit the data that may be released to law enforcement agencies.

The catch is that each agency may receive information only about its own gun recoveries and traces. So, for instance, Pittsburgh police cannot view information on gun recoveries and traces in the many boroughs that surround the city. Since gun traffickers and other violators do not respect municipal or state borders, it is puzzling that the NRA would push for laws that serve only to hamper efforts at investigation and interagency intelligence gathering.

The public is even more in the dark. Do you, as a resident of Pennsylvania, want to know how many guns were recovered and traced last year in your state? That's easy -- just gather the chiefs of Pennsylvania's 1,150-odd police departments in a big room and have them cobble together the trace data from their respective agencies.

Rep. Issa's and Sen. Grassley's staffs may find themselves in the same unnecessary and difficult situation that Bielevicz posited the residents of Pennsylvania would face.