FIRST AMENDMENT FREEDOM FORUM.ORG
Newseum First Amendment Newsroom Diversity
spacer
spacer
First Amendment Center
First Amendment Text
Columnists
Research Packages
First Amendment Publications

spacer
Today's News
Related links
Contact Us



spacer
spacer graphic

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

Analysis

By Tony Mauro
Special to freedomforum.org

11.13.02

Printer-friendly page

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."

Tony Mauro covers the Supreme Court for American Lawyer Media and is a legal correspondent for the First Amendment Center.

Related

Gun-info privacy case to get Supreme Court hearing
At issue is scope of federal public information law allowing reporters, others to get unclassified government records that officials would not otherwise release.  11.12.02

2002-2003 Supreme Court term coverage
Analysis and other coverage of 2002-2003 U.S. Supreme Court term.  10.07.02

Supreme Court throws out gun-records case
Justices cancel arguments scheduled for next week, instruct appeals court to consider whether congressional provision restricting release of gun information affects lawsuit.  02.27.03

Spending bill would obscure gun records from public view
Meanwhile, Supreme Court is to hear arguments next month on how much information ATF should be required to release about firearm traces.  02.18.03

Library filtering backers, foes foresee victory as Supreme Court takes case
Analysis Justices agree to hear appeal after lower court strikes down Children's Internet Protection Act.  11.13.02

graphic
spacer