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Guns, crime and no data

September 03, 2006

TWO YEARS AGO THIS MONTH, the federal ban on assault weapons expired. Since then, sales of such weapons have almost certainly increased, and the number of crimes in which they have been used has undoubtedly risen. Unfortunately, there's no way to know for sure. That's because the public and law enforcement agencies no longer have access to information they could routinely get just a few years ago.

A decade ago, the federal government was beginning to make some progress in making information about crime and guns more widely available. During the Clinton administration, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms started analyzing its vast database for the first time and in 2000 released its "Commerce in Firearms" report. This report -- which was supposed to be issued annually -- was full of information about gun sales as well as sales patterns of weapons used to commit crimes.

Armed with that information, federal and local law enforcement began cracking down on suspect dealers and shifting more resources to areas with disproportionally high levels of gun crimes. The federal government also began collecting information from 40 cities nationwide about their gun crimes and looking for helpful patterns in the data.

Today, such information is no longer available. In 2003, federal lawmakers slipped in a provision to an appropriations bill that bars the ATF from spending money to analyze its gun-crime database or making any data available to the public. The federal government also has stopped collecting cities' gun-crime data.

Congress is now intent on going a step further. This month, it's expected to vote on a package of bills that would make it harder to track other kinds of information. One would bar the federal government from releasing gun-crime data of any kind. Another would make it a felony for a law enforcement agency to share information about gun data with another jurisdiction. (This would make it a crime for a police officer in Los Angeles who wanted to pass along a tip about a gun crime to police in Long Beach.)

The gun industry says this kind of information has no value to the public at large and that law enforcement agencies could use it to harass dealers. That's nonsense. What they're probably worried about is that such information could show how to make gun-control laws more effective.

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