(Belatedly) putting the brakes on the ATF

Yesterday, the U.S. House of Representatives passed H.R. 5092, the “BATFE Modernization and Reform Act of 2006,” by a wide vote margin of 277 to 131. This is a victory not only for law-abiding gun owners and retailers, but for any American who does not want to see this nation become a police state. The gun rights deprivation lobby is, predictably, apoplectic about this much needed protection from the ATF’s abuses. The Violence Policy Center’s press release is typical:

Yet again the U.S. House has put the whims of the gun industry ahead of public safety and the needs of law enforcement by voting to protect corrupt gun dealers. By creating an “ignorance of the law” excuse for gun dealers, the House chose to ignore the fact that corrupt dealers are the number one source of illegally trafficked firearms according to the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. Even more shameful is the fact that the House vote comes on the heels of new Department of Justice statistics showing an almost 50 percent increase in gun violence from 2004 to 2005.

This, actually, is tame compared to the the Brady Bunch’s press release, in which their president, Paul Helmke, had this to say:

The United States House of Representatives today chose to pass special interest legislation that benefits the law-breaking gun pushers who make money by selling firearms that end up in the hands of killers, muggers and thieves. They ignored the concerns of our nation’s Mayors and law enforcement leaders who opposed this awful bill. I was disappointed to see Representatives Gerlach and Fitzpatrick join that terrible vote.

New York City’s Mayor Bloomberg, typically, was even more over the top in his histrionics, especially about a provision in the bill that would permit dealers whose licenses have expired or been revoked 60 days to liquidate their inventories. As a guest speaker for the civilian disarmament lobby in Pennsylvania [free NY Times registration required to read linked article], he claimed this measure is equivalent to allowing arrested drug dealers 60 days to “sell all their crack.” This, of course, conveniently ignores the fact that crack is illegal everywhere, while guns, although vastly over-regulated, are perfectly legal (which is probably the real reason for Mr. Bloomberg’s angst–he would clearly prefer to see crack and firearms share the same legal status).

What the VPC and other groups opposed to this necessary legislation refuse to acknowledge is that the new law actually makes more provisions for punishing gun dealers who violate any of the vast, bewildering array of laws regulating the firearms trade. Under current law, there is almost no middle ground between a warning, and outright revocation of the dealer’s license. The new law would allow for the imposition of fines for violations that warrant more than a warning, but fall far short of justifying forcing a business to close.

For those who appreciate irony (my guess is that this would exclude most of the anti-gun folks), it is amusing, and rather gratifying, to consider the fact that this legislation was inspired by yet another instance of abuse, borne of the ATF’s deeply ingrained institutional arrogance. I refer to the grossly heavy-handed tactics they employed in “enforcing the law” at some Richmond, VA area gun shows–tactics that even a high ranking ATF official later admitted were out of line. The Gun Guys, of course, think the ATF’s actions in Richmond were just great, although their “reasoning” is, once again, a bit tough to follow:

We remember those hearings [Congressional hearings about the Richmond area abuses], and we also remember that the ATF did nothing illegal there at all. We also remember that the only reason the ATF did what they did was that they didn’t have the laws on their side to make sure nothing shady was happening at gun shows… If the ATF used “heavy-handed tactics” against those who would sell firearms to criminals, we’re all for it.

Got that? “The ATF did what they did,” because “they didn’t have the laws on their side…,” but at the same time, “the ATF did nothing illegal there at all.” To say that they “did what they did,” because “they didn’t have the laws on their side,” sure sounds to me like an attempt to excuse illegal behavior.

The ATF is in desperate need of being reined in (since it appears unlikely that they’ll be disbanded entirely in the forseeable future–a far preferrable solution). This bill would be a good first step in that direction. Hopefully, the Senate will follow the lead of the House of Representatives. We need to let our U.S. Senators know that we expect them to do just that.

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