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New Law Hurts Chicago Case in Gun Industry Suit

February 27, 2003|Nick Anderson | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Citing a new law that restricts the release of federal records on gun sales and ownership, the Supreme Court on Wednesday threw out a lower court ruling that would have forced the federal government to give the city of Chicago a large trove of data it sought for a lawsuit against the gun industry.

The high court, with its order, abruptly canceled an oral argument scheduled for next week and instead instructed the lower court to reconsider the case in light of the new law.

The order was a victory for gun-rights advocates and some law-enforcement groups that want the records kept confidential. It was also a victory for the congressional Republicans who wrote the new law, which was enacted as a little-noticed rider to the $397.4-billion spending bill signed earlier this month by President Bush.

A spokeswoman for Rep. Ernest J. Istook Jr., one of the law's backers, said the Oklahoma Republican acted out of concern for the privacy of gun owners.

Micah Swafford, the spokeswoman, said the law codified a Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives policy against the data's release, the bureau's stance since the Clinton administration. The proviso forbids the bureau to spend money to release the records.

Gun-control advocates lamented the court's action and sharply criticized the law, saying that data from federal records compiled through firearm traces should be accessible under the Freedom of Information Act. Chicago officials say records pertaining to weapons used in crimes -- such as a gun's manufacturer or the store where it was sold -- would help them make the case that the gun industry should be held financially liable for the role of firearms in urban violence.

The industry stoutly rejects such allegations.

Until Wednesday's order, Chicago appeared to be making some legal headway in its records fight. A three-judge panel of the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals had backed the city's effort to obtain the data, but that was before Congress stepped in with a rider supported by, among others, the National Rifle Assn.

"It's a classic case of what the NRA can't get or might not get from the courts, it will make sure to get from its tried-and-true allies in the Congress," said Matt Nosanchuk, litigation director for the Violence Policy Center, a gun-control organization in Washington.

Chicago officials maintained that the new law should not affect their case because the city is willing to pay for the expense of providing the data.

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