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EDITORIAL: Gun records

Wednesday, November 13, 2002 - Copyright Las Vegas Review-Journal

The U.S. Supreme Court Tuesday agreed to decide whether the federal government can withhold access to information on about 200,000 firearm traces per year, conducted when officers confiscate a weapon "at a crime scene" (the weapon need not actually have been used in the crime) and proceed to backtrack who made it, sold it and bought it.

The conflict, as generally reported, pits those who believe the information should be available to various watchdog groups, against the Bush administration (backed by the NRA and the Fraternal Order of Police), arguing such records must be kept confidential to safeguard investigations and protect gun-owners' privacy.

Unfortunately, the entire debate revolves around the wrong question.

Information gathered by government agencies is and should be public, unless a compelling argument can be made that the release of a specific piece of information puts in danger the national security, or a specific individual's life or safety. If we don't want the government to have our private information, the answer is to make sure the government is not empowered to gather, retain or catalog it in the first place.

What's bizarre about the current case is that the Brady Act provides gun-buyers with just such a protection. As a compromise without which the 1993 Brady Act -- authorizing the gun-buyer background checks -- would never have passed at all, sponsors guaranteed the federal government would destroy records of any such background checks "immediately."

And that language persists in the law itself.

By arguing it should be allowed to keep the records secret, the Bush Justice Department "is trying to make a bad situation a little better," agrees Larry Pratt, executive director of Gun Owners of America, "instead of just saying what they should say, which is, `We don't have any such database; all those records have been destroyed as required by law.' "

So the Supreme Court has just agreed to decide a case concerning the disposition of gun-purchase records ... many of which no federal agency is allowed, by law, to compile or keep.

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