Tiahrt Amendment

The Tiahrt Amendment prohibits the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (BATFE) from releasing information from its firearms trace database to anyone other than a law enforcement agency or prosecutor in connection with a criminal investigation. Additionally, any data so released is inadmissible in a civil lawsuit. It also happens to be one of the things that our new President and Vice President would like to undo. If you head on over to change.gov, the transitional website for the Obama administration, you’ll see a very sanitized version of the plans for dealing with various things, including gun crimes. The November 7th version was much more explicit.

What’s the big deal about killing the Tiahrt amendment? Police need more tools so they can “solve gun crimes and fight the illegal arms trade”. A more important question to ask is “will repealing the tiahrt amendment give police these tools?”. So let’s have a look at the basic concepts.

  • There is no national gun registration. Most people think that there is. So what about the form that you fill out when you buy a gun?
  • That form is called a 4473. The form asks you a bunch of questions about your identity and citizen status. There’s also a place for the licensed gun dealer to record the make, model and serial number of the gun you are purchasing. The dealer uses some of the information from this form to perform an instant criminal background check, where required.
  • But no serial number is transmitted to the background checking service. Really. All the background check does is determine whether the gun can be legally transferred to the person who filled out the form.
  • Those form 4473’s do not get sent to some giant data repository dug into the side of a hill near Washington DC. They stay, by law, with the licensed dealer for 20 years (a filing and storage resource that the dealer does not get paid to do).
  • There are no 4473’s or background checks for private sales.

Are you with me so far? Good. There’s a lot of emotion surrounding guns and what should be done about/with them. I think that we already have some pretty good “common sense” gun laws on the books that tend to work very well when enforced. It’s already illegal to be a criminal and buy a gun. It’s illegal for a convicted felon to buy or own one. There are restrictions on where one can have their guns and how children can access those guns. So how does “trace data” help police do more? Let’s define trace data. When a particular gun is used in a crime, law enforcement (LE) has the ability to request information on the specific firearm. The first thing they do is determine the maker and the serial number. The LE agency doing the crime investigation will then contact the maker for trace information on the gun and the maker will provide information on who the gun was sold to. It likely went to a distributor. Another trace request from the LE agency to the distributor. The distributor then lets the investigators know which federally licensed firearms dealer (FFL) the gun was sold to. Another trace request to the FFL who then looks up the information in his or her stack of neatly filed 4473 forms. At this point, the trace data will lead to the gun owner or the trail will go cold because the gun has been subsequently sold. All of this trace data is compiled by BATF into a database of weapons that are believed to have been used in a crime. So what about this Tiahrt thing?

The Tiahrt amendment puts very specific restrictions on this trace information. Look at the very first sentence again. It restricts the release of the data specifically to a LE agency or prosecutor in connection with a criminal investigation. That’s pretty important. What if that restriction wasn’t there? Civil rights abuse. Anyone with an official imprimatur could obtain access to this trace data and go on a “fishing expedition”. Your local councilperson could vow to stamp out crime in your neighborhood. He/she gets a list of all the guns that were used in your neighborhood, connected with a past criminal investigation, and instructs the police to go door knocking and beating the bushes. The original criminal investigation may have closed years ago with no indictment, but here comes the law to your door. You’ve just finished off a spliff during the half time of Monday Night Football and you answer the door with the tell tale orange dust of CheezDoodles on the corner of your mouth. The cop asks if he can talk to you about the gun… can I come inside… sees the roach in the ash tray… There was no criminal investigation to bring the officer to your door, but the repeal of Tiahrt gives lots of folks the ability to poke around in places that they really have no business being. If they are investigating a crime, Tiahrt gives them access. Them being bona fide persons who need access to the data. So how will repealing it help cops solve gun crimes and fight the illegal arms trade.

The answer is that it will not. Remember, the trace database contains information on guns invvolved with criminal investigations only. There is no “master” repository of every serial number of every gun sold, so there is no pot of gold that will give whoever magic powers to solve gun crimes. I still haven’t figured out how the information access that Tiahrt protects could possibly be used to fight the illegal arms trade (Nicolas Cage comes to mind), but whatever. Also remember that criminals generally do not buy guns from licensed gun dealers. They can’t because they would fail the background check (being criminals, you know). The guns they have are illegally obtained and possessed. I’m pretty sure that the guy who sells the crappy Rossi .38 revolver (worn nickel plating, of course) to the meth cook at the end of the block isn’t a licensed dealer filling out forms and running checks. Even the best trace data trail will go cold rather quickly in the most common of circumstances.

If you accept the premise that law abiding people tend to abide by laws and that criminals tend to break them… then you understand how trace data requests become a little less than useful. Let’s say that my house gets burgled and the turd blossom takes my big screen TV and a handgun. I file the report. I get a case number for insurance purposes and that’s about it. As we know, most minor crimes go unsolved. Said turd blossom then sells the gun to his local rock man for a few hits. Rock man then gives the gun to his girlfriend so she can protect herself when Daddy ain’t around. Girlfriend dips into the rock candy with her ex while rock man is off making money. The ex steals the gun while she is “freshening up” and bolts. Three weeks later, the ex uses the revolver to hold up Valero convenience store. The counter guy gets all Buford Pusser on the ex and gets himself shot… just as a cop walks in to see what is happening. Cop arrests ex and in doing his paperwork initiates a trace request. Eventually, that leads to my front door and the original police report saying that the gun was stolen. All this is with Tiahrt in place. Information being used in a criminal investigation (that doesn’t really help).

If Tiahrt was not in place, what would happen? Would those in charge be able to show up to my doorstep anytime for any reason for whatever fishing expedition caught their fancy? Is this the civil rights stuff that the Democrats were saying they wanted to defend and protect so much? Or is it just so much window dressing that, like many other government efforts, spend a lot of money and accomplish nothing?


5 Responses to “Tiahrt Amendment”

  1. November 17, 2008 at 9:44 pm

    Isn’t that the current definition of government — spend a lot of money and accomplish nothing?

    Perhaps if more effort were put into solving “minor” crimes, some of these stolen guns could be put back into the hands of law-abiding citizens they were stolen from, instead of efforts to keep the law-abiding from having one at all.

  2. 2 Kevin
    November 18, 2008 at 7:44 am

    Woudl repealing the amendment allow NGOs like the Brady campaign, or even the CDC to access the “database” and harass legal gun owners by posting this info in , say a full page list of people who own certain unpopular weapons?
    That is the only reason I could see to remove this check – to allow non LEOs access to the info.

  3. November 18, 2008 at 9:25 am

    Let me try again. the “database” only contains information about guns that were involved in a criminal investigation. There is no master database of all guns. LEO’s already have access to the trace database if they are conducting an investigation. If Tiahrt goes away, presumably anyone would have access to the trace data at any time (Obama/Biden didn’t spell out how they would open it up, but one has to think that if there are no restrictions… there are no restrictions).

    There is no database of, say, all folks who legally bought and keep an AR-15 type rifle. Those rifles only get in a trace database if they are part of a criminal investigation. There might become one, but I really don’t think the American people will swallow that. I could be wrong. The Aussies certainly did. http://shock.military.com/Shock/videos.do?displayContent=177117&page=5 .

    More importantly, repeal of the Tiahrt amendment would allow for the colorful activity known as “proactive policing”. It would allow police to assume that once a gun is involved in a crime, it will continue to do so. That single trace element will give any LEO the ability to troll the database and look for a “visit” to make. A cop can put in search element requirements of a .40 caliber Glock used in a violent crime in a given zip code. The cop can then go visit these guns at their last known address and see what can be seen. Is this really *probable cause*? Or is this more akin to racial profiling? The Supreme Court has held that that is violation of civil rights.

    But what if the CDC had access to this trace data? What if they compile all the data in big computer and come up with the statistical analysis that a Hispanic male between the ages of 18-24 is 56% more likely to use a firearm in the commission of a crime? What then? Do young Hispanic males suddenly become the focus of increased LEO attention?

    I do not like where this is heading. Can you tell?

  4. April 24, 2009 at 6:29 am

    I hope it’s not too late to comment on this one.

    Who has the right to destroy background checks after 24 hours? Only the BATFE? But you said they don’t keep a database. Could you explain please.

    Are the FFL guys allowed to destroy the background checks after 24 hours under the Taihrt Amendment? You said they keep them for 20 years. Please explain?

  5. April 24, 2009 at 7:33 am

    The NICS background system does not retain the results of any background check after 24 hours. NICS is run by the FBI, not BATF. If an FFL uses NICS to run a background check and forgets to retrieve the results after more than a day, he/she will have to start over. Some FFL’s do retain a copy of the NICS results, althought they are not required to do so.

    The information that an FFL is required to retain is the records of the firearm transaction. This includes the Acquisition & Disposition logs and the 4473 forms associated with the transfer of a weapon, not the NICS data.

    Does this help?

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