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Contact: John Lindsay-Poland, johnlindsaypoland@gmail.com, +1 510 282 8983
Vickie Baranetsky, Center for Investigative Reporting, vbaranetsky@revealnews.org
October 2, 2023

In actions that could lead to disclosure of unprecedented data on gun trafficking from the United States to Mexico and Central America, four organizations filed briefs against the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) for its refusal to disclose aggregate government data on U.S.-sourced weapons trafficked south of the border.

Journalist and researcher John Lindsay-Poland in March 2021 submitted a request under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) for copies of ATF’s aggregate data on the number of firearms traced from Mexico and Central America since 2014, by type, caliber and make of firearm and by zip codes where they were purchased.

ATF denied the data solely based on the Tiahrt Amendment of 2012, federal legislation that limits the government’s publication of information on individual firearms purchases but makes no reference to FOIA. Congress specifically exempted “statistical aggregate data regarding firearms traffickers and trafficking channels” from the Tiahrt limitations. Lindsay-Poland filed an administrative appeal, which ATF denied in October 2022.

Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence and the law firm Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton represent Lindsay-Poland in the legal complaint. Global Action on Gun Violence (GAGV) and the Center for Investigative Reporting (CIR), with pro bono support from the law firm Jassy Vick Carolan (JVC), filed amicus friend of the court briefs in support of Lindsay-Poland’s request.

CIR, the country’s oldest nonprofit newsroom, litigated a similar FOIA case against the ATF in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals for nearly the same type of data that Lindsay-Poland requested and won in 2021. “This lawsuit should never have been filed because the ATF should have released the requested data under binding Ninth Circuit precedent,” CIR stated in its brief with JVC. Yet “by independently choosing to apply the Second Circuit’s decision over the Ninth Circuit decision, ATF masquerades as the Supreme Court,” they said.

Between 2016 and 2020, ATF traced more than 85,000 U.S.-sourced firearms recovered from crime scenes in Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras. U.S.-sourced firearms in all four countries have contributed to spiraling violence, including homicides and forced disappearances, and the flight of hundreds of thousands of migrants from communities plagued by gun violence.

“The fentanyl pandemic in the U.S. is largely fueled by Mexico’s largest two criminal organizations, whose criminal operations are facilitated by U.S.-sourced guns,” attorneys for Global Action on Gun Violence (GAGV) noted in their brief in support of the data disclosure. “Comprehensive trace data plays a critical role both in identifying the root causes and sources of the illicit gun trafficking trade and in evaluating gun policies and educating the public,” the GAGV attorneys said. They also argued that, in its legal defense for the FOIA denial, ATF had introduced a new and unfounded basis of “privacy” for denying the request.

Lindsay-Poland coordinates the Stop US Arms to Mexico project of the San Francisco organization Global Exchange, and has co-authored several reports on the gun trade to Mexico.

“The Government critically concedes … that [the] Center for Investigative Reporting [ruling] binds this Court, and that the 2012 Tiahrt Rider does not bar ATF from releasing statistical aggregate trace data to members of the media,” Cleary Gottlieb and Giffords argued. “The public records sought in this lawsuit are of immense public concern,” said Elizabeth Vicens of Cleary Gottlieb. “Cleary Gottlieb is proud to partner with the Giffords Center to help shed light on the severity of the problem illegal guns pose to the people of Mexico and Central America.”