WASHINGTON—A Kansas congressman and the mayor of New York are waging a gunfight.
It's not quite pistols at 20 paces; more like long-distance political sniping.
The feud is over an amendment that Rep. Todd Tiahrt, R-Kan., authored in 2003 that strictly limits how broadly the government can share gun-tracing data. The data identify the original dealers and the buyers of weapons used in crimes.
Tiahrt and others say the restrictions are necessary because disclosure could reveal the names of undercover officers and informants or tip off the targets of investigations.
New York's Michael Bloomberg and more than 200 other mayors counter that the restrictions handcuff their efforts to combat gun crimes because they can't trace the sources of illegal weapons.
"That's why trace data is so important in the post 9-11 era," said John Feinblatt, Bloomberg's criminal-justice coordinator. "Why wouldn't you let cops connect the dots?"
Although it hasn't reached the Alexander Hamilton-Aaron Burr stage, the debate has grown testy.
Tiahrt questions whether Bloomberg has a motive beyond just getting "guns off the street."
Feinblatt questions whom Tiahrt is "trying to protect" by backing a rule that appears to shield illegal gun dealers from exposure.
Their talks didn't start out this way, back in January. Then it was all sweetness and light. Bloomberg gave Tiahrt a copy of his autobiography, in which he'd written, "Thanks for all you do to keep us safe!"
Tiahrt, meanwhile, acknowledged that the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives was interpreting his amendment, which must be renewed annually, too narrowly in some cases. He said he was open to limited changes to create more access to gun data.
The mayors' chief complaint was that the ATF gives cities access to the data only for specific crimes. The cities wanted more, including information beyond the jurisdictions of where crimes occurred, so they can identify patterns in regional gun trafficking.
Negotiations between the congressman and the mayor broke down in April when Bloomberg and the other mayors tried to pressure Tiahrt by airing a TV ad against the congressman in Wichita. Two stations rejected the ad. A third ran it for a day, then took it down after Tiahrt raised questions about it.
"We worked in good faith, talking weekly, until he decided to run ads," Tiahrt said. "He decided I was moving too slowly for him."
Bloomberg is a billionaire businessman whose media empire bears his name. He's a Democrat-turned-Republican who won re-election two years ago by 20 points, the largest margin in history for a Republican mayoral contender in New York.
Recently, he's met with another maverick Republican, Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, to discuss the 2008 presidential contest. Both have been mentioned as possible independent candidates.
Tiahrt came to Congress with the "Republican revolution" class of 1994, which broke a lot of political furniture when it took over Capitol Hill. He said Bloomberg didn't seem to grasp how things worked there.
"He's a very ambitious man who was CEO of a very successful company, and mayor," Tiahrt said. "New York City is like a kingdom. I don't relish being the educator to a man who's used to getting his own way."
Bloomberg has moved aggressively because New York officials think that many of the illegal weapons on their streets were purchased elsewhere.
"The mayor basically said we can't stand by and let it get worse every year without our voice being heard," Feinblatt said.
The city has filed civil suits against some dealers. Bloomberg also has dispatched private investigators with hidden cameras to gun stores in other states to record their attempts to make illegal purchases.
Virginia's attorney general wasn't pleased when several showed up recently. The Justice Department also has warned the city about using non-law enforcement agents for criminal-justice purposes.
The national office of the Fraternal Order of Police backs Tiahrt. FOP Executive Director Jim Pasco called it "a fit of mayoral vigilantism to muck around in cases looking to seek civil remedies in criminal cases. It's just standing the law on its head."
Bloomberg and Boston Mayor Thomas Menino started Mayors Against Illegal Guns, a coalition that also has law enforcement support, including some local FOP chapters.
Illinois FOP President Ted Street told Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., in a recent letter that the Tiahrt amendment "has functioned to limit effective law enforcement action against corrupt gun dealers and the traffickers they supply."