On Thursday, June 28, 2007 the Senate Appropriations Committee voted to renew the Tiahrt Amendment, a provision that has been attached to U.S. Departments of Justice spending bills each year since 2003. By taking this action, the Senate rejected the recommendations of public health advocates and Mayors Against Illegal Guns, a new coalition of more than 200 Mayors who seek to reduce gun violence This year, the amendment further restricts law enforcement agencies and the public from gaining access to gun trace data The federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) collects data that tracks the movement of a gun from the time of its first retail sale. Previously available under the Freedom of Information Act, the Tiahrt Amendment, if passed by Congress and signed by the President, would now bar the ATF from providing database information to outside agencies unless prosecutor or law enforcement agency certifies that it will be used solely in conjunction with a specific criminal investigation or prosecution.
The story of the Tiahrt Amendment illustrates how the gun industry and its supporters use the legislative process to achieve policy objectives that endanger public safety, jeopardize law enforcement, and thwart local efforts to reduce gun violence.
The Amendment has many supporters, including the National Shooting and Sports Foundation (NSSF) – the industry’s trade association – and the National Rifle Association (NRA), which lobbied forcefully in favor of the amendment. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, Representative Tiahrt, who introduced the legislation, has received $68,000 in campaign contributions from advocates of gun rights. In 2006, pro- gun groups contributed $1,054,775 to Congressional campaigns, 87% to Republicans. The sponsor of this year’s Tiahrt amendment, Senator Richard Shelby, had more cash in his Senate campaign treasury at the end of 2006 – almost $12 million – than any other Senator, including presidential candidate Hilary Rodham Clinton of New York. Big business groups were the primary source of contributions.
While the gun industry and its supporters have long opposed public oversight of their retail practices, this year some new groups joined the fight to reduce gun violence by seeking new tools to investigate illegal gun sales. One of the leaders in this effort is the Mayors Against Illegal Guns Coalition, a bipartisan coalition that now includes 225 members from more than 40 states. In April 2006, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Boston Mayor Thomas Menino invited 15 mayors to Bloomberg’s New York estate to discuss gun violence. There, they drafted a statement of principles that has now been signed by all members. The U.S. Conference of Mayors and the National Conference of Black Mayors have also endorsed the principles.
Mayors Against Illegal Guns, as well as the International Association of Chiefs of Police and other law enforcement organizations argue that the Tiahrt Amendment, limits the ability of local police departments to fight crime by tracking down the source of illegal guns in their communities. Mayors Against Illegal Guns waged a media campaign to urge repeal of the amendment. In one television message, Patricia Tucker, the widow of a North Carolina sheriff who was shot in the face by a teenager on probation for an earlier offence, tearfully urged television viewers to “ask Congress to protect police officers, and not criminals”. Her husband’s assailant was found to have bought a shotgun from a dealer who allegedly should have refused the sale.
The NRA targeted members of the coalition, encouraging their members to send letters their local mayor urging reconsideration of membership in the Mayors Against Illegal Guns. The NSSF also sent letters to the Mayors explaining why the organization supported the reauthorization of the Tiahrt Amendment. Under such pressure, mayors from four cities – Anchorage, Alaska, Rio Rancho, New Mexico, Idaho Falls, Iowa and Williamsport, PA – have left the coalition. The NRA has also pressured local television affiliates in several states not to air television ads created by Mayors Against Illegal Guns. The NRA argued that the group distorted facts in their ads and therefore stations had a responsibility to pull them, given licensing agreements which stipulate that television stations are responsible for the truthfulness of the issue advertising they air. While two Kansas affiliates pulled the ads, another station in Youngstown, Ohio kept the ad on the air.
Though mayors around the country have taken heat for their participation in Mayors Against Illegal Guns, Mayor Bloomberg became the poster boy for the NRA’s counter campaign and is often painted as a “vigilante,” and an “elitist.” NRA Executive Director Chris Cox likened Mayor Bloomberg’s gun control work to totalitarianism. In one NRA publication, Bloomberg was labeled a “billionaire, Boston-grown evangelist for the nanny state – beholden to nothing except his own ambitions.” In April, the cover of NRA Magazine, America’s 1st Freedom, depicted Bloomberg as a sinister octopus with the headline “Tentacles!” James Norell, editor of the magazine stated, “Bloomberg’s tentacles reach throughout the country to foist N.Y.C.-style gun control on you, your friends and neighbors.”
Gun supporters have been particularly upset about New York City’s out of state sting operations. In 2006, New York City undercover agents traveled to five states – Georgia, Virginia, Pennsylvania, South Carolina and Ohio – to target 43 gun dealers who were suspected of illegal gun sales. In such operations, investigators attempt to make “straw purchases” in which an individual fills out legal forms and buys a gun for another individual who cannot legally purchase one. Straw purchases are prohibited by federal law and are often used by convicted felons who cannot legally own firearms. Based on these sting operations, New York City brought lawsuits against 27 gun dealers. To date, 12 have settled and, agreed to monitoring of their sales by a court-appointed master.
In justifying these tactics, Mayor Bloomberg has noted that out of state guns also account for 60% of New York City homicides. Bloomberg and San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom make the case that current federal laws that prohibit illegal guns sales don’t go far enough since they don’t allow law enforcement agencies to determine who is selling the illegal guns to begin with. After attending the funerals of eight New York City police officers killed with illegal firearms in June alone, Mayor Bloomberg argued that repealing the Tiahrt Amendment is a step in that direction. Speaking at the organization’s National Summit in Washington, DC in January, Bloomberg declared, “Mayors are the ones who see first hand the death and devastation caused by illegal guns in the hands of criminals. This is not a question of ideologies of a referendum on the Second Amendment; it’s about saving lives.” After the Senate’s 19-10 decision in late June, Bloomberg stated that the vote “showed Congress at its most craven, buckling to pressure from the gun lobby to protect those who traffic in illegal guns.”
At both the national and state levels, Mayors Menino and Bloomberg are leading the way for stronger gun control measures. Menino created the Strategic Crime Council, a broad-based approach to approaching gun violence, lead the passage of the Gang Bill and Witness Protection Bill, and filed state legislation to require that all guns sold in Massachusetts use micro-stamping technology which links shell casings to the guns which fire them.
Members of the House Appropriations Council will vote on a version of the Tiahrt Amendment in mid July. NSSF Senior Vice President and General Counsel Lawrence G. Keane stated, “As the Shelby amendment works its way through the legislative process, NSSF will look forward to educating lawmakers in the Senate and House of Representatives on the importance of putting public safety and the lives of law enforcement ahead of gun control politics.” National Rifle Association spokesman Andrew Arulanandam believes that efforts to defeat the amendment are have little hope and argues that gun control has waning support in Washington. Kristen Rand, legislative director for the Violence Policy Center (VPC) in Washington urged citizens who wanted to reduce gun violence to support Mayors Against Illegal Guns. “Keeping gun trace data secret,” she said, “puts the whims of the gun industry ahead of the needs of local officials and law enforcement who are desperate for information that will help them fight illegal gun trafficking.”
While Mayors Against Illegal Guns may not succeed in blocking the Tiahrt Amendment this year, they have mobilized public support and media attention and demonstrated the power of local governments to confront an industry and its supporters who have consistently opposed efforts to reduce America’s burden of gun deaths.
All photos: Mayors Against Illegal Guns Coalition