In the twelve months leading to the shooting massacre on the Las Vegas Strip, gunman Stephen Paddock purchased 55 weapons according to police reports — an average of more than one a week, and most of them rifles.
The Gun Control Act of 1968 requires that licensed gun dealers notify the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) when an unlicensed buyer purchases more than one handgun within five business days. Rifles were not included in the law.
Executive action by President Barack Obama extended the multiple purchase notification to rifles in 2011, but only to those sold in the border states of California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas.
Where and when did Paddock buy all those rifles at such a brisk clip? Were any of Paddock’s purchases reported to the ATF? And did Paddock ever space out his purchases in an attempt to evade reporting under the five-day rule?
Thanks to a law known as the Tiahrt Amendment, there’s no way to know.
The measure, named for former U.S. Rep. Todd Tiahrt, R-Kansas, who tacked it on to the 2003 appropriations bill, prohibits the ATF from releasing information to anyone but law enforcement about the sale of guns used to commit crimes.
Even that information is limited, say critics.
“Under current federal law there’s nothing to prevent somebody from amassing an arsenal, as Paddock did, and in many circumstances there’s no obligation or mechanism to notify law enforcement or the ATF,” says Chelsea Parsons, Vice President of Gun Violence Prevention Policy for the Center for American Progress. “Clearly, if someone were paying attention to his record of firearms purchases they would have been alarmed.”
The gaping holes in the multiple purchase regulations allow buyers such as Paddock to stockpile weapons without raising red flags.
“There’s really very little that can be done to identify people like Paddock who are amassing an arsenal,” says Parsons.
The Tiahrt Amendment makes it impossible, opponents say, to glean valuable information from gun buyers planning mayhem, such as Paddock, and prevents the collection of data that could help researchers pinpoint vulnerabilities in gun regulation.
Other provisions of the law, according to Mayors Against Illegal Guns:
- Prohibits the ATF from requiring that licensed gun sellers conduct inventory checks to prevent theft
- Requires the Justice Department to destroy records of approved background checks within 24 hours; making it more difficult to track straw buyers and gun sellers who falsify records;
- Prevents state and local law enforcement from using trace data in license enforcement cases against weapons dealers who break the law.
Proponents contend the Tiahrt Amendment prevents the public from interfering in criminal investigations and placing law enforcement, undercover officers and witnesses in peril.
Supporters also say the law is vital in preventing litigation against gun sellers. Any research that is legally released cannot be used in the litigation discovery process or as evidence against a licensed gun seller.
Attorneys representing MGM Resorts International or victims of the shooting who attempted to hold gun sellers liable would likely be prohibited from using Paddock’s gun purchase information in lawsuits, even if it proved dealers failed to report required transactions to the ATF. Additionally, journalists, regulators and others are in the dark as to whether the ATF properly responds to notifications from gun dealers.
According to news reports, Paddock is known to have purchased weapons in Arizona, California and Texas — three of the four states where the multiple purchase notification rule applies to rifles.
But details of those purchases remain a secret.
Certified Public Accountant Larry Bertsch represents Paddock’s estate. He did not respond to the Current’s request for information regarding the shooter’s weapon purchases.
Police are mixed on their take of the law.
The Fraternal Order of Police supports the Tiahrt Amendment “because of our concern for the safety of law enforcement officers and the integrity of law enforcement investigations. For example, the disclosure of trace requests can inadvertently reveal the names of undercover officers or informants, endangering their safety. It may also tip off the target of an investigation.”
The law is opposed by the International Brotherhood of Police Officers, the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP), the Major Cities Chiefs Association (representing the 69 largest police departments in the United States), the Police Executive Research Forum and the Police Foundation.
The ATF, which has been plagued by budget cuts, is often at odds with the NRA, whose congressional supporters use the annual appropriations process to attempt to strip the Bureau of its powers.
The Obama-era rule on multiple rifle purchases, which specifically targets Mexican drug-trafficking, is a frequent target.
A legislative proposal to amend the law, HR 4025, is sponsored by U.S. Rep. Dina Titus.
“The sole purpose of HR 4025 is to require multiple sale reporting of long guns,” says Parsons of the Center for American Progress.
Sen. Dean Heller, who faces a challenge from Rep. Jacky Rosen, did not respond to the Current’s requests for comment about multiple sale regulations. Rosen declined to take a position on the legislation.
Bump stocks: Regulation vs legislation
Heller is also not listed as a co-sponsor of legislation to ban bump stocks, the device Paddock used to turn his rifles into the equivalent of machine guns.
U.S. Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto of Nevada is among the primary co-sponsors of S 2475, the BUMP Act. While Heller has not signed on to the bill he has said that he advocates for a regulatory change to ban the device.
In the days following the massacre on the Las Vegas Strip, the NRA issued a statement saying it “believes that devices designed to allow semi-automatic rifles to function like fully-automatic rifles should be subject to additional regulations.”
Critics note the NRA called for regulation rather than legislation, which may explain Heller’s adherence to the former.
“It’s good the administration is trying to do this through the regulatory process, but we know as soon as it’s changed, It will be challenged through litigation,” says Parsons. “Here we are a year after the Las Vegas shooting and bump stocks are still not banned. The more efficient, effective way to ban them quickly is through legislation.”