The Tiahrt Amendment: Time to Shoot It Down

June 8th, 2007

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Four years ago, Congressman Tom Tiahrt (R-Neanderthal) ambled into an appropriations committee markup with a piece of paper containing legislative language. Tiahrt rose and sought the recognition of the chairman: “I have an amendment at the desk,” the fifth term congressman said. That was to be one of only two intelligible sentences that he would say on that day in that committee.

He started explain the amendment and got blank stares in return. He was asked several questions and bobbled the answers. One frustrated congressman asked if he had any clue what his amendment actually did. He couldn’t give an answer. Then he fessed up and said the only other sentence that sentient lawmakers understood. The language was written by the NRA, and they wanted this done, he said. Moments later, the provision known as the “Tiahrt Amendment” was added to the bill and it remains in law today.

Four years later, Congressman Tiahrt still seems unable to explain his language, so allow me. It was a rider attached to the funding bill for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms prohibiting the release of information pertaining to guns recovered in crimes. Before Tiahrt, police would recover crime guns and request an ATF trace to determine the original buyer of the gun, the gun store that sold it, and any other suspicious activity that may indicate that either the gun store or the gun buyer was complicit in a criminal enterprise. It allowed local police to connect the dots on gun crimes to determine gun trafficking patterns that included illegal gun runners and dirty dealers. It was part of the crime fighting strategies of many cities and states.

But then one day, one of the litigants against the gun industry obtained this data and used it to show negligence and malfeasance among some in the gun industry. So at the expense of law abiding citizens, Congressman Tiahrt, at the request of the NRA, limited the information supplied to police. Post-Tiahrt, police would still learn the name of the original buyer and the gun store that sold it, but that’s about it. If they ask ATF about suspicious activity, ATF is forbidden by the Tiahrt Amendment to divulge it. If that original buyer is also the original buyer of ten other guns traced to crimes across the country, that information is guarded by ATF as if it were the Holy Grail.

Since passage of Tiahrt, the NRA also forced through legislation forbidding most lawsuits against the gun industry. So the reason for Tiahrt is gone, but the thug-friendly bill remains.

With Democrats in charge, there is a movement to repeal the Tiahrt Amendment. Maybe Congressman Tiahrt finally knows what his amendment does. Or maybe he knew back then but was too ashamed to say.

I hope you’ll take a look at our new message memo on Tiahrt.