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House to Debate Renewal of Gun Tracing Limits

July 11, 2007 at 6:20 PM EDT
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JUDY WOODRUFF: There’s a limit to how much information the federal government can release about guns confiscated during criminal investigations, about who bought them and who sold them. A 2003 amendment permits the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives to release gun tracing data to local police only for specific investigations.

Supporters say that protects law-abiding gun owners from unwanted inquisitions, but opponents of the amendment say it also obstructs broader criminal investigations into terrorist activities and illegal gun sales. Gun trace limits will be up for renewal tomorrow in the House of Representatives.

We get two sides of the debate now from Tom Barrett, the mayor of Milwaukee and a former Democratic congressman; and Republican Congressman Todd Tiahrt of Kansas, he’s the original sponsor of the limits.

Mayor Barrett, to you first. You’re one of, what, over more than 200 mayors who are taking on this cause. This amendment passed in 2003, was voted on again, passed again three more times. Why do away with it?

MAYOR TOM BARRETT (D), Milwaukee: Well, because we want the federal government to be on our side in fighting crime, in making sure we’re doing everything we can to focus in on this very small minority of gun dealers who are in the business of getting guns into the hands of people who shouldn’t have them.

And for us to have the federal government basically say, “We’re going to be on the side of these rogue gun dealers,” as opposed to the side of the police chiefs and the sheriffs in this country, to me is mind-boggling. I want Congress to be on our side so that we can reduce the number of homicides that we’ve got in this country, rather than allow these gun dealers — and, again, it’s a very small minority of rogue gun dealers who don’t seem to abide by the law.

We don’t even know that, of course, because the federal government is prohibiting us from having this information, is prohibiting police departments throughout this entire country from being able to look at trends as to what guns are coming into their community, where they’re coming from.

The latest version is so absurd, it actually says to the law enforcement agents that you have to certify that you are looking at a specific crime or you’re going to go to prison for three to five years. So now Congress is, in essence, threatening the very people that are out there enforcing our laws, saying you’re going to be locked up potentially if you don’t do what we say to do.

"Protecting those who protect us"

Rep. Todd Tiahrt
R-Kansas
What the Tiahrt amendment does is says that, if there is a criminal act occurring, any criminal action, that gun trace data is available, and it's available for different police organizations.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Congressman Tiahrt, you hear the charge essentially that, through this, the federal government is preventing investigations from taking place.

REP. TODD TIAHRT (R), Kansas: Well, I'm not sure what Mayor Barrett was reading from, but it wasn't the Tiahrt amendment. The Tiahrt amendment is to protect those who protect us. It was originally designed to do that back in 2002 and was part of the fiscal year 2003 commerce justice state bill. It has been law since. And, thankfully, we have had no undercover officers exposed and injured in line of duty because of it.

Now, originally, there was going to be a release of this information to the general public through a court action. That resulted in concerns at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, commonly known as the ATF, also concerns that the Fraternal Order of Police, the largest police organization in the nation, that their undercover officers would be exposed by allowing this information, which is investigative specific, to be released into the court system and into the general public through the Freedom of Information Act.

What the Tiahrt amendment does is says that, if there is a criminal act occurring, any criminal action, that gun trace data is available, and it's available for different police organizations. It's available to the court system. It's available to take illegal guns off the street and convict the criminals.

So any time there's been a crime committed, gun trace data is available. I'm not sure what the mayor was referring to, but the perception that gun trace data is not available is simply incorrect.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, let's come back to Mayor Barrett. You hear what the congressman is saying. He's saying it's available when it's needed.

MAYOR TOM BARRETT: Well, the congressman is certainly correct when he states that no undercover agents have been disclosed since the Tiahrt amendment went into effect four years ago. The fact is, no undercover agents were exposed prior to the Tiahrt amendment going into effect.

He talks about support from police. The National Association of Police Chiefs and the sheriffs, the National Association of Sheriffs, are supportive of our efforts to get rid of this, because they understand how this is hampering their law enforcement efforts.

The fact is that you have to be very specific about a very specific crime in order to get this data. So we in Milwaukee cannot get the trends that are occurring in Rockford, cannot get the trends that are occurring in Chicago or Cleveland, or other communities, because the federal government is saying, "No, we don't care. We don't care if those guns are flooding the market in those communities and may be coming to your community next. We're going to be on the side of the rogue gun dealer."

Investigative-specific information

Rep. Todd Tiahrt
R-Kansas
If this information gets out on the general public, as being requested by the mayor's association, then that information will place our police officers in jeopardy. And this amendment is to protect those who protect us.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Congressman Tiahrt, can you address that specific point?

REP. TODD TIAHRT: Yes, I can. I'm not sure why the mayor of Milwaukee wants to make sure he has jurisdiction in Chicago, but I think the real question is: Why do you want the information? If it's a crime, the information is available. And the analysis can be made from the information as to trends and as to certain gun dealers that are...

MAYOR TOM BARRETT: No, it can't. No, it has to be specific crimes.

REP. TODD TIAHRT: Well, it absolutely can, Mayor. And I would beg to differ with you. And, again, I would enjoy the opportunity to show you the Tiahrt amendment, let you read it, and then you would know that there is protective provisions there to keep our undercover officers from being exposed.

When you talk about the investigative-specific information that you're seeking, it would be available to the open public. And today you can go to the Internet and find a Web site that says PoliceInformant.com, and find out who the police informants are in the area. You can see their picture, you can get some contact information for them.

I do not want to see a Web site that says UndercoverOfficer.com. But if this information gets out on the general public, as being requested by the mayor's association, then that information will place our police officers in jeopardy. And this amendment is to protect those who protect us.

MAYOR TOM BARRETT: No, no.

Caving to the gun lobby?

Tom Barrett
Mayor of Milwaukee
The mayors of this country are fed up with having Congress kowtow to the extremists who are doing everything they can to keep this information from law enforcement officials.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Mayor Barrett, I want you to address that. I also want you to address what the New York Times editorialized about today, which is related to this, basically saying that both political parties in the Congress have, in essence, caved to the gun lobby on this issue. They're putting it in a larger perspective.

MAYOR TOM BARRETT: Well, let me address that first, because that's exactly why you've got a bipartisan group of mayors from throughout this country, from every single part of this country, who have come together.

The reason -- and I served in Congress, and it's different, because in Congress you're 600, 700, 800 miles away from home when these crimes occur. As mayors, we receive the calls, I personally receive calls whenever there's a homicide that occurs in my community. We go to the funerals; we call the mothers; we are emotionally connected to the homicides that occur in this nation.

The mayors of this country are fed up with having Congress kowtow to the extremists who are doing everything they can to keep this information from law enforcement officials. That's why you've got over 230 mayors -- both parties, all states -- all involved in this effort, because we're tired, and we're saying to Congress, "We want you to be on our side, not on the side of those who are skirting the law."

JUDY WOODRUFF: Congressman Tiahrt, kowtowing to the extremists?

REP. TODD TIAHRT: Well, that's totally false. And it's a terrible tragedy when somebody is murdered in one of those cities, and we grieve with those families...

MAYOR TOM BARRETT: Thirty thousand a year.

REP. TODD TIAHRT: ... but that is a crime that has been committed, and gun trace data is available for all crimes. So I don't know why he would want any other data for any other reason, because it is available in those very same instances that he has mentioned.

So to say that there's some group that's been -- that's trying to divert the Congress from protecting police officers is absolutely false. The whole purpose of the Tiahrt amendment...

MAYOR TOM BARRETT: I'll tell you specifically, Judy, why we want that data.

REP. TODD TIAHRT: ... the whole purpose of this Tiahrt amendment is to protect those who protect us.

Giving power to the government

Tom Barrett
Mayor of Milwaukee
But if Chicago is being flooded with guns from a dealer who is skirting the law, that means he's going to be skirting the law and getting those guns in Milwaukee next.

JUDY WOODRUFF: All right, to Mayor Barrett.

MAYOR TOM BARRETT: We want that data before the homicides occur. It doesn't do me any good to call that mother and say, "I'm sorry your son was killed."

I want to know -- and I don't want to have jurisdiction over Chicago or any other community. But if Chicago is being flooded with guns from a dealer who is skirting the law, that means he's going to be skirting the law and getting those guns in Milwaukee next. I want to know that and, more specifically, I want my police chief to know that. And that cannot happen here because it's not a specific crime. It's a trend.

REP. TODD TIAHRT: Well, I'll tell you, Judy, that a lot of people in America get nervous when somebody who's elected says, "Just give me a little more power and I will make you safe." And what we have here is a situation where, when crimes are committed or when there's a dealer selling guns illegally, we have an organization that goes after them 24/7, every day. It's called the ATF, and they have officers completely assigned to do this.

What has been happening is mayors have been hiring private agents to go out to try to get illegal purchases. They've been breaking the law and trying to get this information out there in the public, this information on gun trace data, which would jeopardize our undercover officers.

In fact, the legislature in Virginia passed legislation to prevent this from happening in the future. The Virginia attorney general sent a letter to the mayors saying, "Don't do this anymore. You're breaking the law."

So what we see here is people trying to get way outside the normal bounds of how we keep law and order here in America and trying to take jurisdiction away from the federal government and from other cities. I think what we should do is protect our undercover officers, and that's what the Tiahrt amendment does. It protects those that protect us.

JUDY WOODRUFF: All right, gentlemen, we are going to have to leave it there, clearly two very different viewpoints. We thank you both, Mayor Barrett, Congressman Tiahrt.

MAYOR TOM BARRETT: Thank you.

REP. TODD TIAHRT: Thank you.