Good morning. Today I am going to share some thoughts on one of law enforcement's most important tools in the fight against violent crime. In a word, that tool is information.
The background data on criminal gun use collected by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives is critically important to the work of law enforcement as we seek to identify where illegal guns are sold and how they wind up in the hands of criminals.
The so-called trace data produced by ATF tracks the origins of any firearm recovered during an investigation - all the way through the distribution chain from its sale by a manufacturer or importer to its first retail purchase. This data is vital to the fight against illegal gun sales, not just on the streets where the crimes occur but at the very source.
I'm going to give you an update on what's commonly known as the Tiahrt Amendment, which severely restricts our use of this information. Over the past four years, Tiahrt has had a profoundly negative effect on our ability to make use of that data on a broader, national level.
I also want to talk about legislative proposals that could make the situation even worse. More on that in a moment.
First, a few words of background. I speak to you today as the Police Commissioner of a major city that has an enormous stake in halting the flow of illegal guns into our communities. As Mayor Bloomberg mentioned, I also speak from the perspective of someone who served in the federal government, helping to provide background information on illegal gun sales to municipalities.
From 1996 to 1998, I served as Undersecretary for Enforcement of the U.S. Treasury. It was my responsibility to oversee the law enforcement bureaus that reported to the Treasury Department at that time, including ATF.
ATF published four reports on national crime gun data from 1997 to 2000. Here's the cover of one of those ATF reports from 1997. It includes a foreword I wrote to then Secretary of the Treasury Robert Rubin, explaining the strategic importance of these reports in the fight against illegal firearms trafficking.
This document was issued and approved by the federal government as recently as 2002, with the blessing of the current Administration. You can still download this report from ATF's website. What you cannot do is get data past the year 2000, because of the subsequent restrictions placed on ATF.
Almost seven years after the last available data appeared, we continue to battle a flood of illegal weapons on our city streets. I don't have to tell you that. You see it on your streets first-hand.
After a significant downturn across the nation, violent crime is once again on the rise. Many cities are experiencing a substantial increase in shootings and homicides. Even in New York, as the overall crime rate has continued to decline over the past five years, we did see an increase last year in homicides and shootings.
As Mayors Bloomberg and Menino point out in their op-ed in this morning's Washington Times, it's actually a very small minority of gun dealers who are selling the overwhelming majority of guns used in crimes and causing the problems. Sixty percent of the guns used in crimes nationwide can be traced to back to just 1 percent of the dealers. Unfortunately, that figure was generated using that last available ATF trace data report. We can't update it now because of the restrictions in place.
That one percent are the dealers who must be targeted - the ones whose irresponsible and immoral actions must be stopped. But to shut down the pipeline, we have to know who they are, and where they are doing business. We need the information.
Not so long ago, the federal government understood the challenge and supported our efforts by allowing ATF to publish the reports on trace data. Over the past four years, a series of riders attached to department of justice appropriations bills have progressively diminished the access of cities and states to ATF's data, except under specific circumstances.
These are known as the Tiahrt Amendments, after Representative Todd Tiahrt of Kansas who sponsored the legislation. This information, once freely available and enormously helpful to us in the fight against violent crime, is now restricted. And there have been efforts to choke it off for good.
Last year, the House introduced H.R. 5005, which would make the prohibition on the release and use of ATF trace data permanent. The bill was stalled in committee and expired at the end of the 109th Congress. But we suspect we have not seen the last of that effort. If this legislation were to be reintroduced and passed, a situation that is bad enough could become much worse.
The bill would write into the U.S. Code, and make retroactive, all the restrictions previously passed as Tiahrt Amendments. It would make trace data available only to law enforcement agencies or prosecutors, and only that information pertaining to the agency's jurisdiction, and only for criminal purposes - not for a civil lawsuit or administrative proceeding.
Trace data would be inadmissible in any civil lawsuit, state license revocation, or other state or local administrative proceeding. This restriction on civil lawsuits would mean that the kind of innovative efforts led by Mayor Bloomberg in using civil litigation to go after illegal gun merchants and hold them accountable for their actions would be impossible.
Last May, New York City announced the filing of a federal lawsuit against 15 gun dealers identified as selling firearms in violation of federal law. In December, that group was expanded to 27 dealers. The dealers were located in Georgia, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, and Virginia, but the guns ended up on the streets of New York City.
I'd like to take a few moments to show you video footage taken from the undercover investigations on which the lawsuits were based. They contain two examples of what's known as straw purchases. The videos were made by private investigators hired by the City of New York. They were taken with hidden cameras.
Typically, a straw purchase is orchestrated by someone who can't legally buy a firearm. Often a convicted felon will find someone with a clean record - a friend, a family member, maybe a girlfriend - to buy the gun for them and circumvent the background check.
You see in the video two people enter the gun store. The first person picks out the gun, asks all the questions. He's got the money. The straw purchaser steps up at the last minute to fill out the paperwork and make the purchase. Federal law specifically prohibits licensed dealers from selling firearms to individuals when they have a reasonable belief that the guns are not intended for the person who's purporting to be the buyer.
In these videos, you'll see two examples - one good and one bad. In the first case, the dealer declines to allow the purchase to go forward. In the second, the dealer makes the sale even though the person buying the gun asks none of the questions.
Let's have a look.
[videos are shown here]
In the undercover operation, private investigators posed as buyers at 40 stores that had sold guns associated with more than 800 crimes in New York City, even in the face of obvious warning signs, just like we see here. Two-thirds of the dealers went ahead and sold to the straw purchaser.
By the way, last month the City of New York reached a settlement with six of the dealers caught in the sting operation. For the next three years, they agree to let a court appointed special master scour their financial records, put up video cameras, and require their employees to take part in training sessions on how to screen out prohibited gun sales.
Not only would H.R. 5005 have made legal action like that taken by New York City impossible. In some instances, it would have allowed for criminal penalties against law enforcement agencies. For example, police departments could face prosecution if they obtain trace data for a criminal prosecution and then make it available for civil litigation, for a state license revocation, or to law enforcement in a jurisdiction that is only indirectly related to the trace.
H.R. 5005 would have also relaxed federal firearms law and made it harder to enforce. For example, multiple sales of handguns would no longer have to be reported to local or state law enforcement agencies. They would have to be reported only to ATF. The bill would also make permanent the rule that forbids ATF from computerizing its records of sales by gun firms that have gone out of business. And it would allow for the importation of replacement and repair parts for banned guns.
To be perfectly clear, the Tiahrt Amendment has never precluded police departments from tracing the history of guns used to commit violent crimes. We have in the past and we continue to make frequent and effective use of that tool, with the strong support of ATF.
What they restrict is our ability to apply that information beyond the specific case we are actively pursuing at any given time. It severely limits how we make use of the database and hinders our ability to assemble critical information about patterns of gun sales and routes of access. It restricts our ability to collect and share information with other law enforcement agencies. We can't get a systemic picture of where the illegal guns are coming from. We can't get a regional picture. In effect, we operate in isolation.
While attempts to codify Tiahrt have stalled, the amendment itself will remain in effect under a continuing budget resolution.
New York Senator Charles Schumer has reintroduced a bill from last year - S. 77 - that would in effect nullify Tiahrt. It would improve the tracking of firearms by requiring ATF to make gun trace data available to government and law enforcement agencies. It would also allow for more frequent inspections of gun dealers to make sure they're in compliance with the law. And it would enhance the penalties for gun trafficking.
This is the kind of legislation we need to support. And by being here today, this is the kind of national front we need to sustain in the face of opposition to the sharing of gun trace information.
Local police departments alone can't shut down the iron pipeline. That requires a broad national commitment. That's why this summit matters. That's why it's so important that we come together to share information and exchange strategies to counter these extremely harmful measures.
In a post September 11th world, sharing data and intelligence is more crucial than ever. That is one of the biggest lessons we learned. How ironic that as we tear down the walls between law enforcement agencies at all levels in the War on Terror, we see them rebuilt and even fortified in the battle against crime. This is simply unacceptable.
I am encouraged by the show of support represented by Mayors Against Illegal Guns, by the collective strength demonstrated here today, and by your determination to protect the safety and wellbeing of your cities. The growth of this organization to more than 120 mayors over the past eight months is testament to the urgency you feel about supporting law enforcement and protecting your cities against violent crime.
You know only too well the deadly consequences of illegal gun use. Together we will fight to implement sensible gun legislation to protect Americans. Together, we will continue to use every means at our disposal to dry up the flow of illegal guns and make the nation's cities safer for all.
The New York City Police Department looks forward to working with you to make that a reality.