The chair of the House Judiciary Committee and gun rights groups want answers following a report federal agents have conducted surveillance on law-abiding citizens at gun shows.
Late Sunday, The Wall Street Journal published accounts that U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement authorities in 2010 pressed local police to record vehicles plates at a gun show in Del Mar, California. Using license plate scanners, an ICE representative advised the Journal that Homeland Security Investigations agents gathered vehicle data at the event “for planning purposes,” but declined to comment further.
The long-running Crossroads Del Mar Gun Show, near the border with Mexico, typically draws upwards of 10,000 customers, and is one of the largest in the area.
The news of the plate reader use drew quick outrage from gun rights organizations including the Second Amendment Foundation and National Rifle Association who classified the operation as a “civil rights outrage” equating it to illegal snooping without probable cause.
This led U.S. Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., current chair of the House Judiciary Committee, to demand answers from ICE Director Sarah Saldaña on Tuesday.
“While the use of license plate readers is a valid law enforcement tool when properly used, this does not appear to be the case in this situation,” said Goodlate in a letter. “When attending a gun show, law abiding citizens are exercising their First Amendment right to peaceably assemble.
“Further, if they are purchasing or otherwise acquiring or possessing a firearm, they are exercising their Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms,” he continued. “These Constitutionally-protected activities should not subject gun show attendees to unwarranted and heavy-handed surveillance practices by their government.”
Calling the activity “troubling,” the lawmaker asked Saldaña to provide context on the operation including the number of gun shows ICE surveilled, if similar operations are ongoing, how many license plates were recorded, if the information has been retained and if the information led to any arrests.
This is not the first time that such an operation was exposed. Last year the American Civil Liberties Union uncovered a secretive program by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration to build a massive database of license plates images via reader devices.
As part of this investigation, emails released through the Freedom of Information Act detailed cooperation between the DEA’s National License Plate Recognition initiative and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives to scan and record the plates and vehicle images of gun show attendees in 2009, though officials said that phase of the operation never left the planning stages.