Relax: Senate Gun Hearing Isn't What You Think

Everyone take a deep breath. The Senate Judiciary Committee isn't conspiring to strip you of your Second Amendment rights, nor put the heads of licensed gun dealers on the chopping block. Of course, this nebulous hearing announcement touted by the Drudge Report didn't help things.

September 7, 2010

NOTICE OF COMMITTEE HEARING

The Senate Committee on the Judiciary has scheduled a hearing entitled "Firearms in Commerce: Assessing the Need for Reform in the Federal Regulatory Process" for Tuesday, September 14, 2010 at 10:00 a.m. in Room 226 of the Dirksen Senate Office Building.

By order of the Chairman.

Reaction on the Internet was filled with suspicion. Shooting sports news hub Ammoland noted the cryptic notice, and speculated that "an unfriendly Senate committee" must be "up to no good with regards to your Second Amendment rights." On message boards, both the Freepers and Hannity fans assumed that the meeting was a spiteful plot by anti-gun politicians to pass restrictions on gun dealers before Democrats presumably lose the House, and possibly the Senate, in November elections. Blogs echoed these concerns, and considering what Congress has screwed up so far this year, being suspicious of the motives behind the meeting is certainly warranted.

The thing is, gun restrictions aren't the purpose of the hearing at all.

A quick email to a congressional contact confirmed that the purpose of the meeting is to discuss the regulation of federal firearms licensees (FFLs) by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF). The purpose is to discuss Senate Bill S. 941 and House Bill H.R. 2296, known jointly as the "Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives Reform and Firearms Modernization Act of 2009."

The purpose of the bill isn't to restrict the rights of gun dealers or gun buyers. Instead, it was designed to address the inadequacies of existing regulations and give the ATF more flexibility in dealing with dealers that have been found to have committed minor violations. The poorly written current laws give ATF agents very restricted options. Essentially, they can either ignore infractions with a warning, or go the draconian route of stripping the dealer of his license entirely and forcing him out of business for something as petty as misfiled paperwork.

The bill has strong support from shooting sports watchdogs, including the National Rifle Association's Institute for Legislative Action (NRA-ILA) and the National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF).

The NRA-ILA has remarked:

The bills would roll back unnecessary restrictions, correct errors, and codify longstanding congressional policies in the firearms arena. These bipartisan bills are a vital step to modernize and improve BATFE operations.

Of highest importance, S. 941 and H.R. 2296 totally rewrites the system of administrative penalties for licensed dealers, manufacturers, and importers of firearms. Today, for most violations, BATFE can only give a federal firearms license (FFL) holder a warning, or totally revoke his license.

S. 941 and H.R. 2296 would allow fines or license suspensions for less serious violations, while still allowing license revocation for the kind of serious violations that would block an investigation or put guns in the hands of criminals. This prevents the all-too-common situations where BATFE has revoked licenses for insignificant technical violations -- such as improper use of abbreviations, or filing records in the wrong order.

The NSSF is equally supportive of the bill.

The bi-partisan bill was introduced by Sen. Mike Crapo (R-ID) and Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-VT). It would allow ATF new powers to issue fines and suspend licenses of federal firearms licensees (as opposed to current regulations which only allow for license revocation).

The legislation would also allow ATF to distinguish between more serious violations and “benign/administrative” violations. Furthermore, the legislation would create an appeals process, whereby FFLs would have cases heard before a neutral administrative law judge, rather than an ATF official.

NSSF is supportive of this bill as it will help protect the rights of FFLs while giving ATF more flexibility in how they exercise their regulatory authority to encourage enhanced compliance.

The ATF has long been among the most reviled of federal law enforcement agencies, due in no small part to past actions at Waco and Ruby Ridge in the 1990s and laughably absurd rulings on weapons violations that continue to this day. A rumored culture of corruption, incompetence, and lack of leadership -- the agency has been without a director since Obama took office -- are just some of the problems plaguing the agency.

If the Modernization Act can be passed by Congress and signed into law, it will provide the agency more flexibility and better protect the rights of gun dealers as well.

It is perfectly natural to be skeptical of the motives of Congress. That said, this legislation is evidence that every once in a great while, they actually do something right.