WASHINGTON The Supreme Court has backed out of a case that would have settled whether the government has to make public details in a weapons database, including names of gun shops and gun owners whose weapons were used in crimes.
The justices yesterday canceled next week’s arguments in the case, but they could get a chance later to revisit the issue.
The case tested the bounds of the Freedom of Information Act, which allows reporters and others to get unclassified government records that officials would not otherwise release.
The Court’s action does not end the dispute between the city of Chicago and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, which will not release information the city wants for its lawsuit against the gun industry.
The justices instructed an appeals court to consider whether a congressional provision restricting the release of gun information affects the case. Republican lawmakers included the restriction which prevents the ATF from spending money to release the data in an overall government spending bill passed this month.
The city is trying to recover government expenses related to gun violence. Lawrence Rosenthal, Chicago’s attorney, said the ban should not affect the case because Chicago is willing to pay the costs of gathering the records.
Congressional supporters “did not have the votes to actually forbid the release of this data,” Rosenthal said. “All they had enough support to do was make sure the taxpayers didn’t have to foot the bill for releasing this information.”
The Bush administration, the National Rifle Association and other groups had argued that confidential records are needed to safeguard investigations and protect people’s privacy.
Solicitor General Theodore Olson told justices in a filing last month that the release of names “would substantially intrude upon the privacy interests of hundreds of thousands of individuals, without meaningfully serving any public interest.”
NRA attorney Stephen Halbrook said the case’s dismissal is a victory for the government.
“The records aren’t going to be divulged as long as this case continues,” he said.
Halbrook said he had expected the justices to protect the information, and after more fights in a lower court, the case “will probably end up back in the lap of the Supreme Court.”
At issue is access to information on about 200,000 firearm traces a year, in which police, after confiscating a weapon in a crime, track down who made it, sold it and bought it.
Matt Nosanchuk, litigation director of the Violence Policy Center, a nonprofit gun control research group, said that the congressional provision “was designed to cut the city of Chicago’s case off at its knees.”
“It just postpones a resolution of this important issue, not only for the city of Chicago but everyone else,” he said.
Arguments in the case had been scheduled for March 4.
The case is Department of the Treasury v. City of Chicago, 02-322.