Without a computer database, ATF traces a gun by contacting the manufacturer to identify the distributor, who will know the dealer. One of those three sources typically will be out of business, forcing ATF to sift through 445 million snapshot images of sales records, said Ginger Colbrun, a spokeswoman.
In 1999, the agency released the results of such traces, showing that Badger Guns & Ammo in West Milwaukee, Wisc., sold more firearms used in crimes than any other U.S. dealer. The store promised to change its sales practices.
After the announcement, the number of its guns linked to crimes decreased, according to Daniel Webster, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research in Baltimore. Once the Tiahrt measures took effect in 2003 and the data couldn't be released publicly, Badger guns linked to crimes increased, according to Webster's study, published last year in the Journal of Urban Health.
"What the Tiahrt amendments do is provide cover for irresponsible — if not outlaw — dealers," Webster said.
Milton Beatovic, who said he was an owner of Badger until 2007, declined to comment .
Richard Gardiner, a Fairfax-based lawyer who specializes in firearms cases, said shielding trace data and banning inventory requirements help protect dealers from being harassed by police and reporters.
"That's how ATF uses most of its regulations," Gardiner said. "They go after dealers."
Starting in 1996, the NRA also successfully backed a freeze on U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention funding for research that might have suggested ways to prevent gun killings, said Mark Rosenberg, former head of the CDC's National Center for Injury Prevention and Control. There were 31,700 gun deaths in 2011, the most recent data available.
The freeze followed the New England Journal of Medicine's publication of a CDC-funded study that showed guns kept in the home increased the risk of homicide.