If Super Bowl Sunday wasn’t bizarre enough, Monday was even weirder – at least for gun owners. After years of battling the ATF over a litany of different regulations, including such things as ammunition bans and ATF 41P/F, all of a sudden pro-gun language was starting to leak from the historically antagonistic agency. Originally obtained and published by the Washington Post, an internal white paper from ATF COO Ronald Turk presents a number of surprisingly gun-friendly proposals that the agency could pursue over the coming months and years. While these aren’t official ATF positions and should not be taken as indicative of any real policy changes, Turk’s proposals indicate that at the very least the ATF is worried that it might be in trouble now that the presidency and both houses of Congress are in Republican hands.
The eleven-page report isn’t long by any stretch and I do encourage readers to give it a glance. That said, I’ve taken the liberty to summarize all sixteen sections below. The titles of each are ripped from the original document, but the commentary is my own.
New Federal Firearms Licensees (FFL) Dealing Exclusively at Gun Shows: In short, Turk proposes that the ATF adopt a more flexible approach to FFLs and would-be FFLs who intend to sell firearms exclusively at gun shows or online. He argues that making FFLs easier to obtain would actually encourage people to use dealers for purchases and transfers, rather than conducting private party sales. As he sees it, this would more effectively address the mythical “gun show loophole” as people would find it easier to transact with licensees, who are required to carry out background checks. It would also provide more clarity regarding people who are “engaged in the business” of firearms sales.
Armor Piercing Ammunition: The ATF has, in recent years, assumed broad regulatory authority with respect to armor piercing ammunition determinations. On at least two occasions over the past three years, the agency has chosen to flex its muscles in this space by attempting to reclassify common cartridges as armor piercing, which would remove them from the civilian market. Thus far, they’ve succeeded (wrongfully) in keeping Russian 7N6 5.45mm ammo off shelves, but their attempt to ban popular M855 5.56mm ammo caused a firestorm and they had to back down. According to Turk, the ATF has not made any further classifications since the M855 showdown. He proposes that the agency more accurately observe the definitions set forth in the Law Enforcement Officers Protection Act, which are far more specific than the ATF’s current approach and would lead to fewer armor piercing classifications.
Re-importation of Certain Department of Defense Surplus Firearms from Foreign Countries: Remember the Korean M1 Garands and M1 Carbines that the Obama State Department pushed to keep out of the country? Ronald Turk remembers. He proposes that these collectible firearms and others like them be allowed back into the United States.
Title 18, United States Code, Section 922(o): Current law prohibits transfers of post-May 1986 machineguns between Special Occupational Taxpayers (FFL/SOT) without some sort of letter from a law enforcement department specifying that the firearm(s) are for law enforcement use. Turk proposes these rules be relaxed to help support the defense industry and filmmakers. I think most gun owners would agree that the ATF could do a whole heck of a lot more than that.
Firearm Arm and Stabilizing Brace: Turk agrees with most gun owners that the ATF’s current position on stabilizing braces is absurd. As it stands, a brace is not a stock – unless you shoulder it. That action constitutes a “redesign” of the part and makes it a stock. He states that this sort of classification is not consistent with ATF precedent and that the agency should cease to consider usage as a determinant for redesign.
Reissue a New Sporting Purpose Study: Despite the popularity of 3 Gun, 2 Gun, and other practical shooting sports, the ATF has long refused to treat the guns used in these events as sporting firearms under their “sporting purpose” test. Turk notes that AR-15s, AKs, and other rifles have become so popular, largely because they are perfect for these events. He proposes that the ATF re-examine its 20-year-old stance on this matter to address more modern games and designs. This would open up more imported firearms to the US market.
Creation of a Database of Agency Rulings: The ATF has a consistency problem and people often write to them with all sorts of legal questions. A database would provide a centralized repository of previous rulings to address these issues.
Silencers: I’ve talked at length here about the Hearing Protection Act (HPA), so I won’t say much about suppressor deregulation. That said, Turk agrees with gun owners that silencers pose little threat (only 44 people each year are prosecuted for illegal silencer possession) and National Firearms Act (NFA) classification imposes unnecessary burdens on legal silencer ownership. He proposes that silencers be removed from the NFA, eliminating significant amounts of paperwork along with the $200 transfer tax imposed on each suppressor.
Firearms Industry Proposals to Allow for Interstate Sale of Firearms at Gun Shows: All dealers use the same NICS system to sell firearms (though a handful of states have additional sales requirements), so there is no reason for them to be limited to selling only in their home state. Moreover, dealers can, in most cases, sell long arms to out of state buyers. Turk proposes that dealers be allowed to sell across state lines
Destructive Devices: Both grenade/rocket launchers and their ammunition are classified as destructive devices under the NFA and each requires a $200 tax be paid to the ATF. This presents unnecessary redundancy and the proposal outlines how the ATF could relax the registration requirements for this category of weapons.
Demand Letter 2: Turk suggests that the ATF should reexamine the current threshold for Demand Letter 2 (DL2). DL2 is a request for additional information regarding firearm transfers over the preceding year and is presented to dealers who have transferred a specific number of firearms that have been later linked to crimes. The threshold is ten guns right now.
Demand Letter 3: Turk proposes that the ATF keep Demand Letter 3 (DL3). This letter is required of dealers who make multiple sales of semi-automatic rifles in border states. The ATF’s apparent goal with DL3 is to combat firearms trafficking domestically and to Mexico. Turk asserts that DL3 has led to 374 prosecutions in the last five years.
Pending ATF Regulation Regarding FFL Records Retention (20 Years): At first, this section looks like support for changing FFL transfer records keeping requirements from 20 years to indefinite, but Turk actually takes no position. He does point out the burdens to dealers and the questionable efficacy of keeping permanent records for each transfer.
Expanding Permissive Use of NICS Checks by FFL Holders: Turk argues that the ATF should allow dealers to run NICS background checks on current and potential employees. His rationale is that most common pre-employment background checks do not reveal whether a person is prohibited from firearm possession or not. He feels it would be useful for dealers to be able to verify that employees are clear to handle firearms. I’d argue that the ATF should find a way to allow the general public to use NICS for private sales if desired. That use case is not mentioned.
Need for an ATF Confirmed Director: The ATF hasn’t had a Senate-confirmed director for several years.
Old Regulations Under Review for Possible Removal or Amendment: Turk presents a long list of outdated regulations that may be able to be removed from ATF records. These include assault weapons ban, magazine restrictions, and several other gun control projects.
For many gun owners, the whole document seems too good to be true, causing some to channel their inner Admiral Ackbar. If you aren’t a Star Wars fan – shame on you – that means a few people have called this a trap. At first, I was skeptical of this viewpoint, but as yesterday afternoon grew older I could see the reasoning.
Look at it this way: the firearms market is really, really slow right now. Traffic has been good here, but a lot of people are doing big league (or is it bigly?) window shopping and few are actually purchasing guns (or suppressors). The more cynical among us feel like Mr. Turk could be further lulling firearm owners into a potentially-hazardous sense of security. The theory goes on to say that these comments in an already slow market could be damaging to some manufacturers and dealers. That’s all one heck of a conspiracy theory, but I think it’s fair to say that we’re all a bit surprised by this white paper.
For those with a shorter supply of tin foil, there’s still plenty of reason to approach the white paper with some skepticism. Sure, Turk might have been a closeted gun guy all along, but this might also be a rather grandiose effort for some much needed job security. President Trump has already started to put the heat on other agencies, like the EPA, and considering Donald Jr. and Eric’s shared love of shooting, some people at the ATF could see the writing on the wall and might be trying to save face. A new Attorney General would be well within his/her power to replace someone like Turk. I won’t speculate on this matter beyond that, but I will say that this explanation is more reasonable than the trap theory.
Another compelling rationale for the leak was presented on Tuesday by John Boch at The Truth About Guns. In his piece, John argues that Turk’s paper is actually an effort to preserve the ATF’s ability to impose gun control measures outside of the legislative process. If you read through each of the points, nearly all specify some sort of action that the ATF could take to improve things for gun owners. There’s a real chance that Congress could take back some of the ATF’s ability to dictate firearms policy, but if the ATF beats them to the punch on these issues, lawmakers will be less incentivized to address the agency’s past missteps.
The important thing to note about all of Turk’s proposals is that he doesn’t have the power to make them reality. Just because one guy at the ATF thinks these things need to happen doesn’t mean the agency as a whole holds these positions. At the same time, his words should not be lightly dismissed. He’s seen the results of ATF enforcement efforts and understands where the agency has overstepped its bounds or wasted resources. The real problem is that Congress surrendered this power to the ATF in the first place. Any regulatory fixes implemented today could just as easily be removed by a future, hostile administration. The best course of action for gun owners is to heed Turk’s words, but focus efforts at the Congressional level where more permanent solutions can be adopted.