Photographer: Sergio Flores/Bloomberg
The NRA Racks Up Wins in Congress. The ATF Wants to Give It More
The No. 2 official at the federal government’s gun regulator suggests more deregulation of guns.
The congressional shooting today in Alexandria, Va., could reignite a gun debate that’s been relatively muted since President Donald Trump took office. If public attention does shift back to the regulation of firearms, people will discover that there’s actually been a fair amount of activity in this area unfolding just below the radar.
The most intriguing development came back on Jan. 20, inauguration day, when the No. 2 official at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives circulated an internal white paper suggesting that the agency go easier on the regulation of guns and gun dealers. The memo—applauded by the National Rifle Association—hasn’t become official policy, but its mere presence may foretell changes at the ATF.
Republicans in Congress, meanwhile, are pushing bills favored by the NRA that have a decent chance of passage later in the year. One piece of legislation would make it much easier to obtain silencers for guns, and the other would facilitate carrying concealed handguns across state lines. “With Republicans in charge and Trump in the White House, the feeling is it’s now or never,” says Richard Feldman, president of the Independent Firearm Owners Association, a small group based in Rindge, N.H.
Trump has signaled his readiness to sign pro-gun legislation. He received $30 million in 2016 campaign support from the NRA and an ecstatic reception from the lobbying group at its April convention in Atlanta. “You came through for me,” Trump told his audience there, “and I am going to come through for you.”
On Wednesday the White House issued a statement sending the president’s “thoughts and prayers” to House Majority Whip Steve Scalise of Louisiana and at least four others who were injured when a man, reportedly armed with a military-style, large-capacity rifle, opened fire on a congressional baseball practice.
Gun-control advocates responded cautiously. Dan Gross, president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, said via email: “All Americans, including our elected leaders, should live in an environment where they can pursue everyday activities without fear of being shot.” The NRA didn’t make any immediate comment.
Apart from today’s bloodshed, Trump has been taking deregulatory steps urged by the NRA. In February, he signed legislation that rolled back restrictions imposed by the Obama administration on when certain mentally ill people can purchase firearms. Subsequently he overturned another Obama regulation that had stopped hunters from shooting bears from airplanes on federal land in Alaska.
The unusual ATF white paper was written by Ronald Turk, a career official with the title associate deputy director. In the absence of a Senate-approved director, he serves as the chief operating officer at the 5,000-person agency. In an introduction, he described the memo as providing the new administration with options “to reduce or modify regulations.”
Those options include loosening oversight of gun dealers who sell multiple firearms that turn up at crime scenes and studying the elimination of the ban on importing AK-47 and AR-15 military-style, large-capacity rifles. Another option Turk discussed was making it easier for dealers to operate exclusively at guns shows or via the internet.
His suggestions, Turk wrote, would “promote commerce and defend the Second Amendment” without undercutting the ATF’s anti-crime mission. Marked “not for public distribution,” the white paper leaked to the Washington Post and was discussed at a hearing in April of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. Turk testified that his proposals “had been floating around for years” and he merely brought them together in one place, should the Trump administration want to review deregulatory ideas.
Mary Markos, an ATF spokeswoman, says the white paper “was something Ron Turk did on his own. It’s not official policy.” The NRA didn’t respond to a request for comment. Former ATF officials say it was significant that such a senior agency figure would have drafted a formal document for the express purpose of offering the Trump administration deregulatory alternatives.
“In my 25 years, I’ve never seen anything like it. It’s an absolutely big deal,” says David Chipman, a retired ATF agent who’s now a senior policy adviser to the gun-control group Americans for Responsible Solutions. Chipman adds that a number of the Turk proposals are “major line items for the gun industry.”
One way to interpret the white paper is as a message to the new administration from an agency that for many years has seen its authority restricted by NRA-backed Republican lawmakers. “Turk may be lobbying for the top job” at ATF, or “he may be communicating, ‘Please don’t crush us,’” Chipman says.
Another notable proposal in the Turk paper—relaxing restrictions on silencers—is the topic of a pending bill called the Hearing Protection Act. Whether achieved through legislation or executive branch action, the idea is to remove Depression-era curbs on the sale of silencers, also known as suppressors. A tubular accessory that attaches to the business end of a gun barrel, a silencer reduces the noise level of firing. The muffling lessens the danger of hearing damage—and of course can help a stealthy criminal evade detection after shooting someone dead.
Under current law, purchasing a silencer requires ATF approval (which can take eight or nine months), entry of the device into a national database, and payment of a $200 transfer tax. The Hearing Protection Act, introduced in the House by Republican Representative Jeff Duncan of South Carolina, already has more than 140 co-sponsors. It would make buying a silencer as easy as purchasing a gun: consumers who pass a computerized FBI background check could walk away with their merchandise in a matter of minutes, paying no special federal tax.
On another front, the Constitutional Concealed Carry Reciprocity Act would allow a resident of a state with lax gun rules to travel with a weapon into a state with tough standards. The Senate version of the bill is sponsored by Republican John Cornyn of Texas and has at least 37 co-sponsors.
All states now allow for concealed handguns, with a trend toward less and less regulation. Some states already have reciprocity agreements with other states. The proposed nationwide reciprocity bill, the NRA says on its website, “recognizes that Americans’ Second Amendment right to bear arms doesn’t end at their states’ borders.”