By Suevon Lee, ProPublica, Jan. 7, 2013
U.S. gun policy is set by both state and federal law. We previously published an explainer on the ways states have eased gun restrictions. But federal policy, too, has become more gun friendly in recent years — and we're not just talking about the 2008 Supreme Court ruling that struck down the handgun ban in Washington, D.C., and held that people have a right to keep guns in their homes.
Here, we outline five federal policies relating to guns you may not have known about:
1. A federal firearms trace database is off-limits to the public.
How often do federally licensed gun dealers sell guns that are then used in crimes? It's hard to know, because for nearly a decade such gun trace data has been hidden from the public. Even local law enforcement had been, until recently, barred from accessing the database for anything but narrow investigations.
Under the Gun Control Act of 1968, licensed dealers are required to record certain information about a buyer and the gun's serial number at the point of sale. These records go into a database maintained by The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. A tool to catch criminals, the database in the early 2000s became a political flashpoint, as the Washington Post details. Outside research tying seized guns to a small handful of dealers spurred the federal government to impose tougher sanctions and inspections on gun retailers and manufacturers.
But those sanctions sparked a backlash: Since 2003, the Tiahrt Amendments, so named after the former Kansas Republican congressman who introduced the measures, have concealed the database from the public. Prior to 2010, local police could access the database only to investigate an individual crime but not to look for signs of broader criminal activity.
Despite the relaxing of some restrictions, parts of the original Tiahrt Amendment remain in place. The ATF can't require gun dealers to conduct an inventory to account for lost or stolen guns; records of customer background checks must be destroyed within 24 hours if they are clean enough to allow the sale; and trace data can't be used in state civil lawsuits or in an effort to suspend or revoke a gun dealer's license.