Gun store owners in southwestern border states argued in federal court Tuesday that the Obama administration cannot require them to report when customers buy multiple high-powered rifles.
The Justice Department responded to a lawsuit seeking to block the two-month-old requirement by asking a judge to uphold its legality, arguing the measure could help stop the flow of guns to Mexican drug cartels. It requires sellers in California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas to give the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives information about purchasers who buy two or more semi-automatic rifles greater than .22 caliber within five days.
Justice Department attorney Daniel Reiss said having a database of multiple purchasers gives ATF agents the power to trace gun sales within minutes, rather than a multi-day effort to trace the weapons back through the manufacturer, to the seller and eventually the buyer. He said two investigations have already been opened in the short time that the new reporting has been required.
"Without these reports it's very difficult to identify these straw purchasers" who are buying the guns to pass on to the drug cartels, he said.
U.S. District Judge Rosemary Collyer questioned whether monitoring lawful gun sales is an appropriate way to stop the flow of guns to Mexican gangs. The requirement was imposed amid controversy over ATF's Operation Fast and Furious which tried to track guns suspected of being bought by straw purchasers back to gun-smuggling ringleaders, who have long eluded law enforcement. But ATF agents lost track of 1,400 of the more than 2,000 guns identified by Fast and Furious as possibly straw purchases.
Reiss told Collyer that the number of U.S. firearms in Mexico is far greater than those reportedly involved with Fast and Furious.
Stephen Halbrook, an attorney for Arizona-based gun dealers J & G Sales and Foothills Firearms, said previously the stores only had to turn over the data they collect on buyers _ including birth dates, addresses, race and gender _ in the course of a criminal investigation. He said the new requirement creates a federal database of gun buyers in violation of their privacy.
"We don't deny the fact there is a serious problem (of guns getting into Mexico) and it needs to be dealt with," Halbrook said, but he said the problem should be fought using more traditional law enforcement methods instead of "just a fishing expedition" to collect the personal data of buyers without probable cause.
Collyer asked whether ATF would have the authority to require the stores to report when someone buys 30 AK-47 assault rifles, and he said even then the requirement would exceed the agency's authority from Congress and the Constitution. But he said gun sellers would typically report such a sale as suspicious.
James Vogts, attorney for the National Shooting Sports Foundation that also is suing the ATF, said the requirement applies to 8,500 dealers in the four states who have not been connected to guns recovered in Mexico. "I think the decision was hastily made, perhaps for political reasons," he said.
The requirement came amid congressional hearings in which ATF acknowledged making mistakes in Operation Fast and Furious, a program that focused on several Phoenix-area gun shops and is no longer running. The program came to light after two assault rifles purchased by a now-indicted small-time buyer under scrutiny in the operation turned up at a shootout in Arizona where Customs and Border Protection agent Brian Terry was killed.