Is it an infringement on the rights and privacy of law-abiding gun owners?
Firearm tracing is when law enforcement aims to figure out where a weapon recovered at a crime scene came from. On a federal level, the practice began with the Gun Control Act of 1968, which was enacted after the assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Robert F. Kennedy, and Martin Luther King, Jr.
In 2003, former Rep. Todd Tiahrt (R-KS4) introduced a provision which essentially banned the federal government from releasing its firearms tracing information and data except in a criminal investigation. Congressional Republicans renewed the provision and added other related limitations repeatedly in subsequent years, in what came to be known as the Tiahrt Amendments.
Today, these limitations bar federal firearms tracing information from release to the public, to academic institutions for study, or for use in civil lawsuits. Another variation enacted in 2011 also requires the FBI to destroy any records for approved gun purchases within 24 hours.
What the legislation does
The Gun Records Restoration and Preservation Act would repeal several of these Republican provisions, with the aim of making it easier to trace or locate any firearms — even legally purchased ones.
What supporters say
Supporters argue the legislation is a necessary public safety measure, as almost 140,000 firearms were reported lost or stolen between 2012 and 2019.
“For years, the NRA and congressional Republicans have done everything in their power to prevent lawmakers, law enforcement and the American people from understanding the full impact of gun violence on our communities,” Sen. Menendez said in a press release.
“That’s why we don’t have comprehensive research on how the scourge of gun violence is hurting our communities or how restricting access to guns would improve public safety,” Sen. Menendez continued. “It’s time to end the gun lobby’s grip on Congress and reverse decades-long efforts to bury gun data that can be used to inform public policy, reduce gun violence and make our communities safer.”
“As we mourn the tragic loss of eight lives in Atlanta to gun violence, we must take action to put an end to this crisis harming communities across the country,” Rep. Lee said in a separate press release.
“For too long, Republicans in Congress, the NRA and the gun lobby have stood in the way of meaningful gun reforms that could help bring an end to this horrific violence and ensure public safety,” Rep. Lee continued. “It’s long past time to remove the Tiahrt restrictions so the FBI and ATF can collect and maintain the data needed to investigate and prevent gun violence.”
What opponents say
Opponents counter that the bill burdens legal firearms sellers, is too broad in its reach, and would do little if anything to actually deter or prevent gun crimes.
“Despite complaints from anti-gun activists, there are many good reasons for continuing to keep this information confidential,” the National Rifle Association’s Institute for Legislative Action (NRA-ILA) wrote.
“Releasing the information serves no useful purpose,” they said, quoting a 1992 Congressional Research Service Report line that the tracing system “‘is an operational system designed to help law enforcement agencies identify the ownership path of individual firearms. It was not designed to collect statistics.’”
“Traced guns aren’t always ‘crime guns’; firearms may be traced for reasons unrelated to any armed crime,” the NRA-ILA continued. “The [ATF] trace request form lists ‘crime codes’ for traffic offenses and election law violations, among many others.”
And “trace information remains available for law enforcement use,” the NRA-ILA concluded. “The language and history of the Gun Control Act [of 1968] are clear: Congress always intended to keep this information confidential, and to allow its use only for legitimate law enforcement purposes.”
Odds of passage
Rep. Lee’s prior 2020 version attracted 33 cosponsors, all Democrats. It never received a committee vote, despite Democrats controlling the House. The current version has attracted a somewhat smaller 19 cosponsors, all Democrats. It awaits a potential vote in the House Judiciary Committee.
Sen. Menendez’s 2020 version, then called the Tiahrt Restrictions Repeal Act, attracted seven Democratic cosponsors. With Republicans controlling the chamber, it never received a committee vote. The current version has attracted an identical seven cosponsors, all Democrats. It awaits a potential vote in the Senate Judiciary Committee.