At the end of February, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms issued a lengthy epistle on "determining whether certain projectiles are 'primarily intended for sporting purposes.'" Anyone who read the 17-page memo would learn that the ATF was considering a ban on M855 ball ammunition, and that citizens had until March 16 to comment.
Now that the ATF has buckled, and bailed on the rule, we can find lessons in the wreckage. Anyone who had a glancing familiarity with gun rights or gun owners—anyone, it seems, who didn't work for the ATF—could have predicted the next step. M855 "green tip" ammo flew off the shelves, as ammo and guns have every time President Barack Obama's administration made a move. Obama's election in 2008 kicked off a surge of gun-buying, and it's never been controversial to call him America's "number one gun salesman." On conservative news sites, at gun shows, it's been easy to find people fretting the coming gun grab. And here was the Obama administration, grabbing ammo.
"He can't win at the ballot box, he can't win in the Congress," said NRA vice president Wayne LaPierre to Fox News last week. "Now, he is trying to act like a dictator and planning on forcing this ban, ammo ban, on the American public by executive regulation."
Outside the conservative media, coverage of the panic came in two flavors. The first: Color stories about people snapping up ammo. The second: Eye-rolling about the Republicans telling people to fight the ATF rule. The Daily Beast, for example, used a PAC message about the rule from Kentucky Senator Rand Paul as a case study in how he seized on conservative panics to build his e-mail list.
This wasn't wrong, exactly. Paul's the-gun-grabbers-are-coming message asked conservatives to "chip in" and sign a petition, after sharing some reasons to be worried. "Like 'Operation Choke Point'—which targets firearms and ammunition dealers with harassment because the Administration finds them 'objectionable'—the BATF's ammo ban is a backdoor route to imposing President Obama's gun control," wrote Paul. The reference to the ongoing anti-fraud program, which Republicans have accused of targeting industries that offend liberals, put the ATF rule in context without ever actually pointing supporters to the ATF's comment submission form.
They found it anyway. In its white-flag announcement, the ATF revealed that "more than 80,000 comments" had been submitted. As Evan McMorris-Santoro reports, they probably didn't come from a flat-footed gun safety movement. The proposed regulation dropped on a Friday, and the White House did nothing to promote it. "The guys who were worried about losing these [bullets] worked harder than those who don’t see these things regularly in their normal life," said Ladd Everitt, spokesperson for the Coalition to Prevent Gun Violence.
Indeed, and they were only getting stronger. On March 9, the day before the surrender, Senate Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley marshaled all but one of his Republican colleagues for a statement against the rule. (Only Illinois's Mark Kirk sat it out.) On May 10, Grassley shared credit for the victory with his colleagues. "I will continue to stand up for the rights of law-abiding Americans and the constitutional protections they are guaranteed," he said in a statement.
Paul's operation, which had been so recently mocked for lobbying against the rule, was just as happy. "It is why you mobilize people," said Doug Stafford, a spokesman for Paul. "People taking action absolutely can have an impact, as this clearly showed. Gun owners and second amendment advocates have won two major battles, one in Congress and now in the administration, through their advocacy."
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported the date of the Grassley statement.