Data on firearms will remain elusive, despite Obama’s efforts

Washington – Despite President Obama's push for gun control, his administration is likely to continue to be in the dark about gun ownership patterns in the United States and the role guns are playing in society.

That means the public won't have a clue either.

"No one is keeping records of this stuff and that's the way the National Rifle Association wants it," said Sam Hoover, an attorney with the San Francisco-based Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence.

"Access Denied," a recent report by Mayors Against Illegal Guns, a group headed by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, documents how for more than a decade the federal government has conducted almost no scientific research on how criminals get and use guns, the sources of guns used in crimes or the causes of gun violence.

Things may change a little because President Obama issued a memorandum last week requiring the Department of Health and Human Services to ignore a law passed by Congress that prohibits HHS from using any of its funding "to advocate or promote gun control."

Obama's memorandum mandated HHS's Centers for Disease Control and Prevention "to conduct or sponsor research into the causes of gun violence and the ways to prevent it."

Before Obama issued his memorandum, Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-3rd District, sponsored legislation that would reverse the "de facto ban" on gun research at the CDC.

"These restrictions have had a chilling effect on our ability to fully understand the causes of gun violence and how best to address it," she said.

Even with the president's memorandum — which some conservatives decried as unconstitutional — most research into gun ownership and other firearm-related issues will continue to be conducted by private groups and academics in the United States and abroad.  And, according to Access Denied, U.S. studies are dwindling.

"The decline in federal research funding has driven many experts to abandon the field and kept young researchers from taking it up," the report said.

According to a report by the Geneva-based Small Arms Survey, there were 270 million firearms in the United States in 2007, or more than 88 per 100 residents.

That made the United States No. 1 in gun ownership — with a bullet. Yemen came in a distant second, with nearly 50 guns per 100 residents.

The latest state-by-state survey of gun ownership was conducted by North Carolina State Center for Health Statistics. Its Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System conducted a survey in 2001 that asked 201,881 Americans nationwide, "Are any firearms now kept in or around your home? "

The study determined the District of Columbia, which had the nation's toughest gun laws, had the fewest guns per capita, 3.8 percent. With, 16.7 percent of its respondents saying they owned guns, Connecticut came in sixth, after D.C., Hawaii (8.7 percent), New Jersey (12.3 percent) , Massachusetts  (12.6 percent) and Rhode Island (12.8).

Wyoming had the most guns per population, nearly 60 percent.

The National Institute of Justice, the principle research arm of the Justice Department, has not conducted a gun-related study since 1999, Access Denied said.

The Justice Department did not return calls requesting comment.

Hoover of the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence said "it boggles the mind" the federal government knows so little about gun ownership.

"There should be full registration of all firearms and licensing of all gun owners. That's what other countries do," Hoover said.

But gun-rights groups say that would allow the federal government to strip them of their Second Amendment rights and they object to the president's proposal to expand background checks.

Obama "wants to put every private, personal transaction under the thumb of the federal government, and he wants to keep all those names in a massive federal registry," said NRA President Wayne LaPierre.

Donna Sellers, spokeswoman for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosive said her agency is prohibited by law from compiling a registry or conducting studies on gun ownership — although every purchaser of a gun from a licensed dealer has to report the serial number of his weapon to the ATF, along with identifying information. That information is used to trace guns used in crimes.

Also, when an individual pays a transfer tax to ATF on a gun that has since been banned, like a machine gun or short-barrel rifle manufactured before the restriction, records of that transaction are kept.

But legislation sponsored by former Rep. Todd Tiahrt, R-Kansas, in 2003 has  made it harder for cities and states to have access to the ATF's trace information. The legislation, promoted by the NRA, also bars the ATF from using an electronic database to organize millions of records, forcing the agency to use a paper-based filing system.

Gun rights advocates believe ready access to gun ownership information would help gun control advocates and those seeking to sue gun manufacturers.

"For over a decade, cities and anti-gun organizations sought access to confidential law enforcement data on firearms traces, both for use in lawsuits against the firearms industry and for use in questionable studies used to support their goals," the NRA said in a statement lauding congressional approval of the Tiahrt amendment.

Tiahrt's legislation also required the FBI to destroy all records from background checks within 24 hours.

DeLauro wants a repeal of the Tiahrt restrictions on trace information.

But Obama did not include that in the gun-control package he released last week. Nor did the president address the other problems his administration has in compiling information about guns.