Public access to government gun records a key element in case before high court

Wednesday, November 13, 2002

WASHINGTON — A case that the Supreme Court agreed to consider yesterday merges the gun-control debate with questions of public access to government records.

The case, United States v. City of Chicago, involves a dispute between Chicago and the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. It could be an important test of the strength of the Freedom of Information Act in a period of greater public concern over privacy and national security. Significantly, however, it does not involve an FOIA request by an inquisitive journalist or public-interest group.

The dispute began instead with an FOIA request from the city of Chicago for the extensive databases on firearms sales kept by the ATF. In 1998 Chicago filed suit in a state court against firearms manufacturers and retailers, claiming, among other things, that they facilitated illegal sales of firearms in Chicago and therefore violated “public nuisance” laws.

To bolster its case, the city filed the FOIA request with ATF seeking access to one national database that traces firearms involved in crimes, and another that records multiple sales of firearms to the same person within short periods. ATF agreed to release limited information from the databases concerning Chicago sales and residents, but withheld the national data. It invoked FOIA exemptions that allow the government not to release records that would invade personal privacy or interfere with law enforcement proceedings.

Chicago appealed in federal court, winning at both the district-court and appeals-court levels. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit said the government had presented only “far-fetched hypothetical scenarios” of the harm that could be caused by disclosure. The court also said that whatever “minimal privacy interest” existed in the records was outweighed by “the public’s interest in allowing the city to further its suit in the state court.”

The government appealed to the Supreme Court, and yesterday’s action means the dispute will be heard early next year.

The government argues that release of the database would be harmful because it would make public the fact that a trace was requested on a gun, which agency requested it, and the name of the gun’s last owner. “The manifest sensitivity of that information, and the obvious likelihood that release of the data would, in the aggregates, cause immense harm to law enforcement interests,” the government brief said, makes it clear that it should be withheld.

The National Rifle Association also filed a brief with the high court asserting that the case was “of exceptional importance regarding the privacy interests of millions of Americans who chose to own firearms.”

Countering the appeals court contention that there is no privacy interest in owning a firearm, the NRA cites several statutes that explicitly limit the public disclosure of gun-ownership information gathered by law enforcement agencies.

But Chicago, in its brief with the court, argues that “the purchase of firearms, occurring within an industry subject to intensive regulatory scrutiny, is not private in any meaningful sense.”

Tags: , ,