WASHINGTON -- For five years, the National Rifle Association and its allies have successfully lobbied Congress to limit the ability of local police to access federal gun trace data. Now, by moving to remove those limits and increase the ability of local officers to track so-called crime guns, Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski is venturing into what is rapidly emerging as the latest battlefield in the war over gun rights.
A provision first approved in 2003, when Republicans controlled Congress, sets tight controls on how the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives may share its gun data with local police departments. But with Democrats in charge, that law has become the target of an aggressive new campaign by gun control activists, who aim to kill it.
The effort puts the Maryland Democrat at the center of a high-profile gun control fight for the first time in her 20-year Senate career, just as the gun debate is evolving away from ownership rights and toward public safety concerns.
Groups such as New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg's new Mayors Against Illegal Guns, the International Association of Chiefs of Police and other law enforcement organizations say the 2003 restrictions make it harder for local police to track the flow of illegal firearms through their communities.
"One of the lessons that we learned after 9/11 was that you need police officers to be able to connect the dots," said John Feinblatt, Bloomberg's criminal justice coordinator. "You need people to be able to share information."
But the Bush administration, the National Rifle Association, the National Fraternal Order of Police and other supporters of the current law contend that making the gun data more widely available could jeopardize investigations and endanger police.
"You can find Web sites now that show pictures and information about police informants," said Rep. Todd Tiahrt, the Kansas Republican who introduced the restrictions in 2003. "If the mayors are successful, there will be other Web sites about undercover officers."
Breaking the barrier
Enter Mikulski, now preparing to shepherd through her first spending bill as the new chairwoman of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice and Science. She has removed the provision from the legislation, which is to be debated tomorrow by her panel.
"I'm on the side of law enforcement, particularly the local guys," Mikulski said in an interview. "And they have been very clear that this has been a barrier between them and the ATF. ... I want local law enforcement to have every federal tool possible to be able to fight crime in their own communities."
Baltimore Mayor Sheila Dixon and Police Commissioner Leonard D. Hamm oppose the restrictions, as do the chiefs of police in Montgomery and Prince George's counties and the Maryland Municipal League Police Executives Association.
It is unclear whether the effort to keep the provision, known as the Tiahrt Amendment, out of the final legislation will succeed. Sen. Richard C. Shelby, the senior Republican on Mikulski's panel, has said that he will attempt to put the restrictions back into the bill when the full Appropriations Committee considers it this week.
Gun control advocates could be facing an uphill battle. A companion effort in the House of Representatives to allow a freer flow of gun trace information has been unsuccessful.
"We'll debate it, we'll duke it out and we'll see what happens," Mikulski said. "I believe I'll prevail."
A matter of access
The conflict centers on access to the database that the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives has compiled on guns found at crime scenes. On request by a local law enforcement agency, the bureau's National Trace Center will investigate the gun's history, checking the serial number against records kept by manufacturers, distributors and dealers to determine when, where and by whom it was purchased.
The bureau reports its findings to the requesting agency and adds them to its own records, which contain data on millions of crime guns.
The Tiahrt Amendment, which has been written into every Justice Department spending bill since 2003, prohibits the bureau from releasing information from the database unless a law enforcement agency or prosecutor certifies that it will be used solely in connection with a bona fide criminal investigation or prosecution.
In practice, opponents say, this means that a local police department can learn the history of the gun it has recovered and little else. Scott Knight, chairman of the firearms committee of the International Association of Chiefs of Police, is one such critic.
"Someone goes into a convenience store in my city, uses a gun and commits a crime, I can get information on that gun from the ATF," said Knight, the police chief in Chaska, Minn. "I cannot find out if the same supply source provided five, two, three, six guns in my neighboring communities."
If local police were allowed to see the broader picture, he said, they could identify rogue dealers -- the 1 percent nationwide that Knight contends are responsible for selling 60 percent of the guns used in crimes.
"Maybe we need to turn off that spigot," he said. "Why are we shielding these people?"
The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives opposes changing the provision. Michael J. Sullivan, the acting director, said the bureau would encourage police departments that appeared to be working on related crimes to communicate with one another. But he said that "taking the liberty" of sharing trace information developed in response to a request by one police department with another one could raise conflicts.
Police who request gun trace data from the ATF believe "it's their prerogative to share that information with other agencies," Sullivan said in an interview. "If they thought we were just routinely sharing it with other jurisdictions without their assent, I think that there would be some level of concern that they ... have the opportunity to weigh in on whether information that's sensitive to their investigation is being shared."
The NRA and the National Fraternal Order of Police say the mayors and police executives who oppose the Tiahrt language want trace data primarily to further civil lawsuits against the gun industry, such as the action that Bloomberg is pursuing against dealers in Virginia that he alleges sold firearms illegally to undercover investigators sent by New York.
"It really boils down to, what is the appropriate use of that data?" said Tim Richardson, senior legislative liaison for the National Fraternal Order of Police. "And if we're willing to place civil litigation ahead of criminal investigations, that's really where the question begins and ends. ... Our objective is to arrest, prosecute and get good sentences on those that are engaged in illegal firearms trafficking."
Since Democrats gained control of Congress, both sides in the gun issue have stepped up activism. Mayors Against Illegal Guns, a bipartisan coalition founded last year by Bloomberg and Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino, has supplemented a newspaper and Internet advertising campaign against the Tiahrt language with television spots in key congressional districts. The NRA is urging members to contact their representatives about making the restrictions permanent.
Mikulski has heard from both sides. In April, 15 Senate Democrats, including Benjamin L. Cardin of Maryland, urged her to remove the Tiahrt language from the 2008 Justice Department spending bill. Last week, the National Fraternal Order of Police urged her to keep it in.
With a record that includes votes to require background checks before sales at gun shows and against a ban on lawsuits against manufacturers, Mikulski has earned ratings of 100 percent from the Brady Campaign To Prevent Gun Violence and a grade of "F" from the NRA.
"I respect the Second Amendment of the Constitution," Mikulski said. "I also believe that adults have every right to own a gun [for hunting]. ... But the fact is that in some of our communities now, a 12-year-old can get [his] hands on a gun. I don't think that's right, and that's very different from shooting muskrat on the Eastern Shore."
NRA spokesman Andrew Arulanandam expressed confidence that the provision would remain the law.
"I think there's a realization from politicians among both parties that gun control is a losing proposition," he said. "The gun control community still has allies in Congress. But I think that there isn't a political appetite for gun control."
But Paul Helmke, president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, sees a tide turning.
"I feel a lot more optimistic about this than I would have a year ago," said Helmke, a Republican and former mayor of Fort Wayne, Ind. "I think having different people in control of the committees does make a difference. Having Senator Mikulski in the majority obviously gives her more clout with regard to this issue. But it's still going to be a tough issue."