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Reporters Committee urges Seventh Circuit to release ATF gun data

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The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press today urged the federal appeals court in Chicago to order the government…

The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press today urged the federal appeals court in Chicago to order the government to disclose data showing who sells guns ultimately used in crimes.

In a friend-of-the-court brief filed in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, the Reporters Committee asked the court to order the release of Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives gun trace and multiple sales data in a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit by the City of Chicago.

Affirming a lower court, the appeals court ruled two years ago that the data must be disclosed, but an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court by the government was sent back to the court after Congress in a resolution embodied in an appropriations measure said the agency could spend no money to fulfill FOI Act requests for the material.

“These are very valuable public records,” said Reporters Committee Executive Director Lucy A. Dalglish. “In the past, reporters have used the information to help the public understand who is selling these guns, how criminals get the guns, how the ATF has and has not taken action to prevent that from happening, how local law enforcement agencies have sold weapons used in crime with little or no intercession by the ATF, and what crimes have been committed using these weapons.”

The city’s 1998 FOI Act request sought the agency’s gun databases for use in a civil lawsuit against firearm manufacturers, distributors and dealers. The city alleged that the gun industry marketed guns to local residents, even though most gun ownership is illegal there.

The data sought include 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.

ATF claimed disclosure would harm investigations and invade gun owners’ privacy.

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, including a short provision to prevent funds to process FOI requests for the data. As a result, the Supreme Court sent the case back for reconsideration.

Negotiations for the records between Chicago broke down when Congress in January passed the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2004 with stronger language prohibiting funds for the disclosures.

The Reporters Committee argues that the appropriations resolution and act do not alter the right of access granted by the FOI Act. They also argue that Congress’ decision not to fund the processing of FOI Act requests, in order to insulate firearm laws from legal challenge, is unconstitutional viewpoint discrimination in violation of the First Amendment.

The Reporters Committee’s brief can be found at: https://www.rcfp.org/news/documents/20040416-chicagovba.pdf