April 19, 2009

Schumer, Gillibrand: Gun Background Check Records Destroyed After Only 24 Hours, Leaving No Way to Trace Gun Purchases When Investigating Major Gun Crimes

Schumer and Gillibrand to Make Push to Repeal Law Which Comes Under Renewed Scrutiny in the Wake of Binghamton Massacre and Mexico Border Violence - Ask President Obama to Leave it Out of His Budget

Today, United States Senators Charles E. Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand criticized the federal policy requiring that the records from federal gun purchase background checks be destroyed after 24-hours because it severely ties the hands of law enforcement and stated must be repealed. In a letter to President Barack Obama, both Senators asked that the dangerous Tiahrt Amendments be kept out of the FY 2010 Federal Budget, which is expected to be released in the coming weeks. The Tiahrt Amendments have been included in the Bush Administration's Federal Budget for several years and the Senators are hoping with a new administration, the Amendment's will finally be left behind. Schumer and Gillibrand are urging President Obama to reinstate a 90-day retention period that existed before the current 24-hour period was implemented by the Bush Administration in 2004.

"We shouldn't be tying the hands of law enforcement when they are trying to investigate serious gun crimes. We should be giving them every available tool to fight these illegal activities," said Schumer. "Eighty-five of the guns used in crimes in New York City come from out of state. Allowing law enforcement authorities simple access to firearms data is sound public policy, will get guns off the streets, and will make New Yorkers safer."

"As New York's newest Senator, and more importantly, a mother of two young sons, I want to do everything in my power to give law enforcement the tools they need to keep guns out of the hands of criminals and other dangerous people and reduce gun violence, said Senator Gillibrand. "I will work with Senator Schumer and President Obama towards common sense solutions that can help solve the problems we face."

The Amendments, named after Congressman Todd Tiahrt of Kansas, are a series of restrictions on the use of data gathered by the of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) This data play a critical role in cracking down on gun trafficking and other gun crimes. Specifically, one of the Tiahrt Amendments requires the FBI to destroy certain National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) background check records within 24 hours.  Schumer and Gillibrand are urging the President to support a return to the more sensible 90-day retention period that existed before the 24-hour rule was put in place in 2004.  Under current law, it is illegal for anyone to purchase a gun if they fall into any one of several categories, including being a convicted felon, having serious mental illness, being an illegal alien, or having a domestic violence conviction.  The NICS check system searches an individual's background for such information.

It is now difficult to track how many gun crimes could be prevented if the 90-day rule were reinstated, as the records of all NICS checks in which a buyer is approved to buy a gun are now destroyed in 24 hours.  However, data from before the rule was put in place paint a troubling picture.  A 2002 GAO report showed that during the first six months of the former 90-day record destruction period, the FBI initiated 235 actions to retrieve guns from buyers who were wrongly approved to purchase guns in the first place.  Of those 235 actions, 228 -- or 97% -- could not have taken place if the 24-hour rule had been in place.

Another Tiahrt Amendment prevents ATF from requiring gun dealers to check their inventories for lost and stolen guns.  In 2008, the ATF reported 30,000 guns missing after inspection of less than 10% of gun dealers the year before.

A final dangerous aspect of the Amendments restricts states and localities from having full access to aggregated trace data.  As a result, requests for data from traces of guns used in crimes can be made only in connection with individual criminal investigations.  States and localities are not allowed access to data that would allow them to examine gun trafficking patterns. The restriction's effect on law enforcement is made clear by the case of Russell Timoshenko, an NYPD officer shot while on patrol in Brooklyn on July 14, 2007.  The gun used to kill him was traced to a gun dealer in Virginia who had previously been indicted for gun sales practices. While the ATF was able to provide the data on the particular gun used to kill Officer Timoshenko, the Tiahrt Amendments did not allow any further data to be shared with New York City.  The gun shop from which the gun originated is now closed.

It is estimated that 85% of the guns seized in New York crimes originate from out-of-state. In 2005, the New York District Attorney and the New York Police Department exposed a Manhattan resident who had sold undercover detectives 18 firearms, including an Uzi and other assault weapons, and significant quantities of methamphetamine, half a kilogram of cocaine, and other drugs. Trace data confirmed that the defendant had bought the guns from three dealers outside of New York City.  One dealer had not only sold the defendant assault rifles, but also falsified federal records about the sales.  To help identify other traffickers who might have been using the dealer, the District Attorney sought trace data on guns sold by the store and recovered across the state.  The Tiahrt Amendments barred any such request.

The Tiahrt Amendments have been included in the Bush Administration's Federal Budget for several years and the Senators are hoping with a new administration, the Amendment's will finally be left behind. Senators Schumer and Gillibrand are pushing for a smarter, safer approach that would reinstate a 90-day retention period that existed before the current 24-hour period was implemented by the Bush Administration in 2004. They are urging President Obama to do the right thing and put law enforcement and the public first by leaving the Tiahrt Amendments out of the FY 2010 Federal Budget.

Schumer and Gillibrand also called attention to a related problem raised in a recent troubling report in the New York Times.  The article identified the difficulties in tracking weapons are complicating efforts to crack down on violence caused by Mexican drug cartels.  By law, ATF can conduct an inventory audit of a gun dealer once a year.  However, in practice, because ATF staff is stretched thin, gun dealers are inspected far less frequently than that.  As recently as 2007, ATF estimated that it would take 17 years to inspect every gun dealer in the United States. This was far from ATF's stated goal of being able to conduct routine inspections once every three years.  Schumer and Gillibrand wrote a letter today to Attorney General Eric Holder, asking him for an estimate of how much more ATF personnel would be needed in order for the ATF to be able to inspect gun dealers at least every three years, and perhaps annually.