ATF must release gun ownership records

Freedom of Information | Feature | May 3, 2002

    NMU         ILLINOIS         Freedom of Information         May 3, 2002    

ATF must release gun ownership records

  • The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms was ordered to turn over documents detailing the sale and purchase of firearms to the city of Chicago over objections that release would harm privacy interests and ongoing investigations.

A federal court of appeals ruled April 25 that gun ownership records maintained by an agency within the U.S. Treasury Department must be released to the city of Chicago.

The U.S. Court of Appeals in Chicago (7th Cir.) found that disclosure of the records by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms would not constitute an invasion of privacy nor would it interfere with ongoing investigations and so would not be exempt from the federal Freedom of Information Act as the agency had claimed. The records contain, among other things, the names and addresses of gun owners, distributors and dealers.

"When one balances the public interest in evaluating ATF's effectiveness in controlling gun trafficking and aiding the City in enforcing its gun laws against the non-existent or minimal privacy interest in having one's name and address associated with a gun trace or purchase, the scale tips in favor of disclosure," the court said in its decision.

The ATF had argued that disclosure could endanger the lives of agents in the field or result in the intimidation of witnesses.

But the court found no such dangers, saying that the agency's arguments were "based solely on speculation."

The city originally requested the records under the FOI Act in March 2000 to use in conjunction with a civil suit it filed against a number of gun dealers and distributors. In its suit, the city alleges that certain firearms dealers market their weapons to city residents where gun possession is strictly limited to rifles and shotguns, impeding the city's ability to enforce its gun control laws.

While the ATF eventually provided the city with some information, it withheld the serial numbers and manufacturers' dates of the weapons as well as the personal information on gun purchasers.

The city then filed suit against the ATF in federal district court and won on March 6, 2001.

The ATF, the federal law enforcement agency responsible for upholding gun control laws, maintains two weapons-related databases: the Multiple Sales Database and the Trace Database.

(Chicago v. Department of Treasury; Chicago corporation counsel: David Graver) -- KC


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