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Federal law blocks local officials from seeing where guns used in crimes came from. Baltimore is suing to find out

By Emma Tucker and Omar Jimenez, CNN

Baltimore (CNN) — Last summer, on a hot and humid July night at her home in Baltimore, Krystal Gonzalez was jolted to her feet by her husband’s screams. He almost never raised his voice.

Gonzalez could not register the words her husband was crying out, except their daughter’s name: “Aaliyah was shot!”

Hours earlier, their daughter said one last “I love you” as she walked out the door and headed to a block party with a friend. The next time Gonzalez saw her daughter, who had graduated from high school just three weeks earlier, her body was covered with a white sheet at the scene of a mass shooting at the yearly celebration known as Brooklyn Day.

The moment Gonzalez arrived, she was getting ready to kick off her slippers and sprint to find her daughter, when she looked to her left and saw Aaliyah’s foot sticking out from under the sheet.

She knew it was her.

“The police officers are saying, ‘Ma’am, you don’t want to see her like this.’ And I’m like, ‘You don’t know. You don’t know. I need her. Oh my god, I need her,’” Gonzalez told CNN.

It was the worst night of her life, Gonzalez said, and it plays on repeat in her mind every day. Her 18-year-old daughter was one of two people killed in the mass shooting, which left 28 others injured, when gunfire erupted at around 12:30 a.m., July 2, in the Brooklyn Homes neighborhood of south Baltimore.

Five people, including three juveniles, have been arrested in connection with the shooting, but no one has been charged in the killings of Aaliyah Gonzalez or 20-year-old Kylis Fagbemi.

Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott doesn’t know where the guns came from or how they ended up in his city, but he is almost certain they were trafficked across state lines.

Data from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives show most firearms recovered from crimes in Maryland do not originate there but only law enforcement officials can see the weapons’ history. Public officials, such as Mayor Scott, are barred by a provision in federal law known as the Tiahrt Amendment from accessing the ATF firearms trace database, the only source for information about the manufacturer, distributor, point of sale and recovery of guns linked to violent crime nationwide.

Scott and the city council of Baltimore are suing the ATF, arguing he and local lawmakers cannot stop the flow of guns without knowing where they come from, hobbling their efforts to spot trends and hold unlawful dealers accountable.

The mayor says Baltimore has no gun stores but 84% of homicides reported in the city since 2007 were firearm deaths, according to city officials in the suit.

In its lawsuit, the city said the ATF adopted an overly narrow interpretation of the law, arguing it cannot prevent the disclosure under the 2009 Open FOIA Act. More than 60 Democrats in Congress seemingly agree, penning a letter to President Joe Biden in September, urging him to direct the Department of Justice to review its interpretation of the amendment.

“When you’re dealing with an issue as complicated as gun violence, you need every single tool at your disposal and as long as we don’t have access to this information, we won’t have every tool,” Scott told CNN.

Biden has promised to improve access to firearms data, campaigning in 2020 on his intent to repeal provisions like Tiahrt as part of his agenda to crack down on the nation’s gun violence epidemic. But he has yet to use his executive authority to order a review.

A White House spokesperson told CNN, “Early in the Administration, the White House did ask the Department of Justice to review its interpretation of the Tiahrt Amendment,” and referred to the DOJ for further comment.

When reached by CNN, the Department of Justice did not provide a comment.

Gun rights organizations and law enforcement groups supporting Tiahrt, such as the Fraternal Order of Police and the Firearm Industry Trade Association, assert releasing such sensitive data would jeopardize criminal investigations and put firearm retailers at risk. Gun policy and violence prevention experts counter the agency can safeguard data while giving critical information to localities.

Research shows many weapons are used repeatedly to commit crime, according to Alex Piquero, a criminology professor at the University of Miami who previously served as the director of the US Bureau of Justice Statistics.

“Knowing that information allows the city and the law enforcement to crack down on businesses that might be acting nefariously,” Piquero said. “If you don’t know the nature of the problem, how are you going to direct resources to where the problem is, and or where it’s coming from?”

‘Too many guns fall into the wrong hands,’ ATF says

The ATF processes tracing requests for firearms linked to crimes for thousands of law enforcement agencies, urging them to take a gun’s serial number, if it has one, and pinpoint when the firearm went from lawful commerce into the black market.

The goal of the agency’s national tracing center is to slow down those pathways or stop them completely, ATF Director Steven Dettelbach told CNN.

“There are too many guns that fall into the wrong hands in this nation,” Dettelbach said. “It is too easy to move firearms from the legal market to that illegal black market.”

Dettelbach would not comment on the Tiahrt Amendment but noted Congress “has restrictions on how we can share, and use, and divulge trace information,” adding the ATF does not “write the laws, we abide by them.”

Tiahrt named after proponent of gun rights

The Tiahrt Amendment, first enacted as a rider to appropriations legislation in 2003, grants the ATF one exception to blocking the public disclosure of information from its firearm trace database.

It allows the agency to release “statistical aggregate data regarding firearm traffickers and trafficking channels, or firearms misuse, felons, and trafficking investigations,” the rider states.

The agency released its first national report on US crime guns in more than 20 years, which revealed trends from 2017 to 2021, including about a quarter million gun thefts from private owners each year, among other findings.

Despite the restriction, there is nothing in the data that would reveal the identities of who is being investigated for any crime, according to Daniel Webster, a research scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Violence Solutions.

“You could analyze the data and make predictions on who might be under investigation; but you’d likely be wrong,” Webster told CNN.

The rider was named after then-Kansas Rep. Todd Tiahrt, a Republican, who put it into the bill because “I wanted to make sure I was fulfilling the needs of my friends who are firearms dealers,” he said at the time.

“I take him at his word,” Webster said.

At the time, cities nationwide were bringing lawsuits against the gun industry after research using crime gun trace data showed 1% of licensed gun dealers sold nearly 60% of the guns used in crime and implicated “corrupt licensed gun dealers in channeling hundreds of guns to criminals,” Webster said.

But Congress did not address the root problems revealed by the research, instead opting to take action to protect the gun industry from “stronger regulations, oversight, and litigation against corrupt gun dealers,” said Webster.

The Baltimore lawsuit and the letter to Biden from Democrats in Congress highlight a central sticking point that has fueled the debate surrounding the Tiahrt Amendment, according to Garen Wintemute, director of the Violence Prevention Research Program at UC Davis Health.

“It has been clear that the language of the amendment has been ambiguous enough that it has had different interpretations, and the language has changed over time,” Wintemute said.

Lawmakers can rescind or alter the language in the amendment, he added.

“It’s a real shame … That every city in the country doesn’t have access to these data so they can study the flow of crime guns in their own city,” Wintemute said.

Tiahrt supporters: Data ‘misused’ by gun control groups

Gun rights organizations like the National Shooting Sports Foundation, the firearm industry trade association, argued in their support of the rider the tracing data was previously “misused by gun control groups in litigation against industry members as a substitute for actual evidence of wrongdoing.”

In January, the foundation filed a motion to intervene in Baltimore’s lawsuit against the ATF, saying in a statement the data sharing “would jeopardize ongoing criminal investigations, putting the lives of law enforcement, witnesses, cooperating firearm retailers and others at risk.”

Lawrence Keane, senior vice president and general counsel of the foundation, told CNN it’s clear Congress is not going to repeal Tiahrt because it had the support of major law enforcement groups as well as the Justice Department when it was enacted.

Even if the gun tracing data reveals a high number of crime guns originating from a single source, Keane said, “it’s not indicative that anybody has done anything wrong.”

Florida Rep. Maxwell Frost, a Democrat who signed the letter to Biden, told CNN, “More needs to be done.”

The goal, Frost said, is not to take away guns from lawful owners, but to implement common sense gun control policies to save lives.

“Congress needs to act, but we also need to have someone in the White House who’s willing to sign that legislation and continue to push ATF to develop rules that will make us safer,” he added.

Mayor Scott says his efforts are not targeting lawful firearms owners and dealers.

“This is trying to save American lives and help police investigations so that they’re not tracking down the same guns coming from the same stores each and every year, which is happening on the streets of Baltimore and cities around this country right now.”

For Aaliyah’s mother, the result of gun violence is as personal as it is irreversible.

“I have to close my eyes and envision her speaking to me, her giving me a hug. I have to do these things in order for me to survive, right?” Gonzalez said. “When you shot Aaliyah, she didn’t get back up. That was permanent.”

CNN’s Betsy Klein and Hannah Rabinowitz contributed to this report.

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