The Tiahrt Amendments have had a significant chilling effect, weakening law enforcement efforts to prevent gun crimes and prosecute gun offenders, and limiting the public and researchers’ ability to study gun trafficking.
Named for their sponsor, US Representative Todd Tiahrt (R-KS), the Tiahrt Amendments are provisions that have been attached to US Department of Justice appropriations bills since 2003 that have significantly restricted law enforcement’s ability to investigate gun crimes and prosecute unscrupulous gun dealers. Subject to certain exceptions, the Amendments currently:
- Prohibit the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) from releasing firearm trace data for use by cities, states, researchers, litigants and members of the public;
- Require the Federal Bureau of Investigation to destroy all approved gun purchaser records within 24 hours; and
- Prohibit ATF from requiring gun dealers to submit their inventories to law enforcement.1
In addition to firearm trace data, the Amendments also prohibit the disclosure of data on multiple handgun sales reports as well as gun sales information a dealer is required to keep that may be required to be reported to the US Attorney General for determining the disposition of one or more firearms in the course of a bona fide criminal investigation.2
Restrictions on Crime Gun Trace Data
The original Tiahrt Amendments prohibited ATF from disclosing firearm trace data except to law enforcement in connection with a specific criminal investigation or prosecution, or to a federal agency for national security or intelligence purposes. These restrictions barred law enforcement agencies from accessing and sharing aggregated data to examine patterns of gun trafficking or identify gun dealers linked to large numbers of crime guns.
In Fiscal Year 2008, Congress loosened the Tiahrt restrictions, permitting law enforcement to access trace data, allowing ATF to:
- Share firearms trace data with tribal and foreign law enforcement agencies and federal agencies for national intelligence purposes;
- Share firearms trace data with law enforcement agencies and prosecutors to exchange among themselves; and
- Publish annual statistical reports on products regulated by ATF, including total production, importation, and exportation by each licensed importer or licensed manufacturer, or statistical aggregate data regarding firearms traffickers and trafficking channels, or firearms misuse, felons, and trafficking investigations.
For Fiscal Year 2010, Congress further loosened data sharing restrictions among law enforcement, freeing law enforcement agencies to access trace data with import beyond only individual criminal investigations to utilize such data to search for criminal networks and gun trafficking patterns.
Subject to these important exceptions, the Tiahrt Amendments continue to prevent ATF from disclosing relevant data to members of the public, including researchers and litigants, for use in lawsuits against the gun industry. Furthermore, Tiahrt still prohibits the use of trace data as evidence in civil proceedings, immunizes data from legal process and restricts data availability to subpoena or other discovery. ATF may use trace data in civil proceedings it initiates under certain circumstances, however.
Mandatory 24-Hour Destruction of Gun Purchaser Records
The Tiahrt Amendments require the FBI to destroy all approved gun purchaser records within 24 hours of approval, making it extremely difficult for ATF to retrieve firearms from prohibited persons who are mistakenly sold guns or from gun owners who become ineligible to possess guns. The destruction of gun purchaser records also limits ATF’s ability to quickly and efficiently trace crime guns.
Records of completed firearm sales are invaluable tools for law enforcement. These records are most useful when they are collected in a central database and retained permanently. In California, for example, handgun sales records are permanently retained in a California Department of Justice database. As a result, law enforcement agencies in the state are able to quickly trace the ownership of handguns recovered in crime. (Commencing January 1, 2014, long gun sales records also will be permanently retained by the California Department of Justice.)
Records regarding gun ownership also help protect law enforcement officers who must respond to emergency calls at private residences because they allow officers to determine if a person at a residence may own a firearm. In addition, firearm ownership records facilitate the relinquishment of firearms by persons who are convicted of a felony or otherwise become ineligible to possess guns.
Prohibition on Gun Dealer Inventory Reporting
The Tiahrt Amendments prohibit ATF from requiring gun dealers to submit inventories. Gun dealer inventories facilitate enforcement of the federal law requiring dealers to report the loss or theft of firearms and help law enforcement oversee the more than 50,000 firearms dealers nationwide. According to a 2008 analysis by the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, more than 30,000 guns in the inventories of firearms dealers were unaccounted for in 2007.3 Requiring the submission of inventories by gun dealers forces dealers to better control their inventories and helps prevent corrupt dealers from supplying the illegal market and then claiming that their firearms have simply disappeared.
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- Consolidated Appropriations Act 2010, Pub. L. No. 111–117, 123 Stat. 3128-3129 (2009).
- See 18 U.S.C. § 923(g).
- Press Release, Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, U.S. Gun Shops “Lost” More Than 30,000 Firearms Last Year (June 17, 2008).