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FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: September 26, 2007

Schumer Presses ATF Nominee On Why NYPD Was Stonewalled On Gun-Tracing Request Related To Brooklyn Cop Killing

ATF Cited Controversial Tiahrt Amendment in Rejecting Commissioner Kelly's Request for Info on Sales of Guns Like That Used in Timoshenko Case

Nominee Tells Senator: 'I'm not sure why the request was turned down'

WASHINGTON, DC—Today, in a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, U.S. Senator Charles E. Schumer questioned Michael J. Sullivan—nominated to be the Director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF)—on the Tiahrt Amendment and how it may have prevented the sharing of information in connection with the murder investigation of NYPD Officer Russell Timoshenko.  Sullivan, who most recently served as the U.S. Attorney for the District of Massachusetts and Acting Director at ATF, would be at the helm of an agency with jurisdiction over matters such as terrorism, violent crime, explosives and arson.  As the federal agency that oversees firearms, the ATF also has the unique ability to trace gun crime data.  However, because of a provision known as the Tiahrt Amendment, the ATF frequently refuses to share gun tracing information with local law enforcement investigating trends in gun crime. When asked about the practice of precluding access to trace information, Sullivan conceded that his reading of the amendment did not prevent ATF from sharing information with local law enforcement or other entities.


“I was glad to see some daylight on this issue with Mr. Sullivan,” Schumer said.  “He seems willing to try to work with Congress to ensure that local law enforcement has access to the tools it needs, but the proof of the pudding is in the eating.  We want an answer as to why the NYPD request for information on guns like those used in Officer Timoshenko’s death was denied by ATF.  I look forward to reading Mr. Sullivan’s more detailed answers to my questions, which he has promised he will provide in writing.”


In response to Schumer’s questioning, Sullivan said: “Firearms trafficking is at the forefront of ATF’s responsibility.  I’m optimistic that more information will be handed over.  My reading of the amendment does not prevent me from sharing this information.”  With regard to Timoshenko specifically, and the NYPD’s denied request for further gun trace information, Sullivan replied: “I’m not sure why the request was turned down,” and pledged to look into the matter and provide further clarification in writing.


Since 2003, Congress has attached riders to the Department of Justice appropriations legislation that bar ATF from using money to share information from its trace database.  In practice, this prevents local law enforcement from accessing data and tracing guns used in violent crime.  This is particularly a problem in states such as New York that have more stringent gun-ownership laws, because the vast majority of the guns used in violent crime are trafficked in from other states.  For the last several years, Senator Schumer has supported legislation to repeal the Tiahrt Amendment.  The legislation has consistently been blocked by opponents in the Senate.


In July, a New York Police Department detective by the name of Russell Timoshenko was shot and killed by an illegal gun that is thought to have been acquired in and trafficked from Virginia.  Press accounts reported that the particular dealer had previously been indicted for his gun sales.  It has been suggested that, in connection with the investigation, the NYPD requested additional trace information from the ATF, who refused citing the Tiahrt Amendment.


There are approximately 192 million privately owned firearms in the U.S.—65 million of which are handguns.  In 2004, nearly 30,000 people died in firearm-related deaths.


Senator Schumer’s opening statement as prepared is reproduced below:




September 26, 2007


Mr. Sullivan, thank you for being here today.  I commend your many years of service to the government, as a United States Attorney, a district attorney, and a state representative.  Having been both a federal and state prosecutor, you should know as well as anyone how gun violence and firearms trafficking is devastating communities—not just in big cities like New York, but in small towns around the country.


I also hope you agree with me that the ATF’s ability to trace gun crime data is one of its most important powers.  To this end, we should never unreasonably tie the hands of law enforcement when it comes to sharing and tracing gun data.  This is why I’m anxious to hear your views about what have been called the “Tiahrt amendments.”


Mayor Bloomberg has worked hard on this amendment and expressed to me particular interest in your views on this issue and on the language.  As you might know, about 1% of the nation’s licensed gun dealers account for some 57% of traced crime guns. 

There is nothing wrong with the vast majority of the country’s gun dealers.  But there are a few bad apples in the bunch, and we must find a way to stop them.


But since 2003, Congress has attached riders to DOJ appropriations legislation that bars the ATF from using money to share information from the trace database with most anyone—researchers, local governments, even Congress.  And so, even though the police can trace a specific gun used in a specific crime to solve it, they can’t look at patterns of sales of illegal guns.


One example of this hits very close to home.  This past July, an NYPD detective Russell Timoshenko was fatally shot in my hometown, Brooklyn.  Several press accounts reported that he was shot by an illegal gun that came from Virginia.  In fact, press accounts reported that this dealer had previously been indicted for his gun sales.  That gun shop is now closed, and that dealer has been stripped of his license.


It is my understanding that the NYPD asked the ATF for data about which dealers in Virginia supplied the most crime guns—like the one used to kill Officer Timoshenko—so they could identify the traffickers.  But it is also my understanding that the ATF refused that request for data, citing the Tiahrt amendment.  If this is the true, it is an outrage.  If it is true, it is a horrible example of gun laws gone wrong. 


I want to hear your thoughts on this case, and others like it.  I hope you can freely tell us today what your views are on the Tiahrt Amendment, and what you can do as head of the ATF to help ensure that innocent people do not lose their lives because of bad policy.  I hope you can give us your views today on the most recent Tiahrt language that has passed the Senate, Appropriation Committee which may even subject law enforcement officers to jail time for sharing trace data.  In my view, it is horrible policy to subject police officers to prosecution for making trace data requests.  I’d like to hear your views on the issue. 


We are just five months removed from the tragic events at Virginia Tech.  This country knows all too well what happens when our gun laws fail.  I have sponsored legislation that is backed by the NRA—that is being considered by the Senate as we speak—to help modernize our background check system.  We cannot let more people slip through the cracks and do harm to others.  But stopping gun violence also requires a broader, national effortI hope that as ATF head, you will be able to will help, and not obstruct, that process. 


I thank you for coming, and I look forward to hearing your views on these very important issues.



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