By Kevin Johnson
WASHINGTON, D.C. — Only about a third of the nation's estimated 17,000 local law enforcement agencies regularly request federal assistance for "trace information" identifying the source of firearms used in crimes, federal authorities said Monday.
"There may be law enforcement agencies out there not asking for it because they don't think they have access to it," says Michael Sullivan, acting director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF).
For investigators, the trace information is often key to tracking suspects in gun-related crimes. Using serial numbers and other descriptive information from recovered weapons, federal authorities can compel firearms manufacturers and dealers to provide information about who first bought the weapon and when.
Federal authorities say they tend to receive repeated requests for help every year mostly from the same 6,000 law enforcement agencies — and rarely hear from the other 11,000. They worry that the ongoing public debate — fueled by advocacy groups and a national coalition of mayors — over access to the critical background information may be discouraging police departments from requesting it. Sullivan says conflicting interpretations of federal law may be contributing to false perceptions that the police are no longer able to receive the information.
The ATF is permitted to share trace information with agencies that request it as part of individual ongoing criminal investigations. The bureau, however, is restricted from sharing results of individual requests with departments other than the requesting agencies. Federal law also shields the data from use in civil suits.
A national coalition of municipal leaders, Mayors Against Illegal Guns, have called for broader access to the trace information, saying that when analyzed in bulk it could help cities target illegal gun dealers more effectively.
John Feinblatt, criminal justice coordinator for New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a leader of the coalition, says it has been "impossible to get a straight answer out of the ATF," about the rules for requests on trace data.
Feinblatt says the ATF has turned down requests from some cities attempting to "use trace data to map the black market" for illegal weapons.
But Sullivan says that individual law enforcement agencies are free to share the information ATF provides to other agencies.
Chuck Canterbury, president of the Fraternal Order of Police, says Bloomberg and other members of the coalition have done "a wonderful job of confusing police chiefs and sheriffs" over their rights to access, which he thinks are adequate under current rules.
Broader release of the data, he says, could compromise sources of key information and interfere with criminal inquiries.
Copyright 2007 The USA TODAY
Feds: Police often skip 'trace data' in gun crimes, may not be aware of access