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Federal officials may not withhold gun data, appellate court rules

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Federal officials may not withhold gun data, appellate court rules

  • The federal appeals court in Chicago ruled that the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives must release gun-tracing data to the city of Chicago despite a congressional refusal to pay for the release.

Sep. 17, 2004 — Data on gun buyers and sellers must be released to the city of Chicago by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives under the Freedom of Information Act because the city offered to pay for the release, the U.S. Court of Appeals in Chicago (7th Cir.) ruled Thursday. The court rejected an argument from the federal government that a refusal by Congress to pay for the release justified keeping the information secret.

The city requested access to the ATF’s gun databases in late 1998 for use in a civil lawsuit against firearm manufacturers, distributors and dealers. Although it is illegal to possess most guns in Chicago, the city alleges that the gun industry nonetheless marketed guns to Chicago residents, interfering with the gun ban.

The data sought includes lists of noncommercial gun buyers who purchased more than one gun from the same dealer within a five-day period, and records of the manufacturer and the chain of ownership of guns used in crimes. The ATF claimed disclosure would harm law enforcement investigations and invade gun owners’ privacy.

Affirming a lower court, the appeals court ruled April 25, 2002, that the data must be disclosed. The ATF appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

While the high court was receiving briefs in the case — including a friend-of-the-court brief filed by The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press — Congress passed the Consolidated Appropriations Resolution of 2003, which contains a provision denying funds to process FOI requests for the data. As a result, the Supreme Court sent the case back for reconsideration.

The city and ATF engaged in settlement negotiations throughout 2003, but negotiations broke down when Congress passed the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2004, again denying funds for FOI requests for the data.

The Reporters Committee filed another friend-of-the-court brief in the renewed litigation before the appeals court.

On Sept. 16, the court again ruled that the ATF must make the data available.

“We find that the statutes in question preclude the use of federal funds for the retrieval of the information but do not substantively change the FOIA,” Judge William J. Bauer wrote for the three-judge panel. “[A]ccordingly, ATF must provide the City access to the databases.

“We believe this task is best accomplished through the use of a court-appointed special master, paid for by the City. ATF protests that its employees would still need to assist the special master during the course of the data retrieval and that would require an expenditure of resources; we find these costs are de minimis and do not bar the use of a special master.”

The court also held that because the language of the appropriations measures was unambiguous, it would not consider the legislative history of the measures or revisit its prior ruling that disclosure would not harm law enforcement investigations or invade gun owners’ privacy.

(City of Chicago v. U.S. Dept. Of Treasury) GP

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