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September 20, 2010

A Serious Violation

Despite the critical mid-term elections that are rapidly approaching, the Democratic Congress has seemingly forgotten its base (and agenda) and is instead taking orders from the National Rifle Association (NRA). Two Congressional committees are currently planning hearings on H.R. 2296/S. 941, the NRA-drafted “Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) Reform and Firearms Modernization Act,” which would severely limit ATF’s ability to shut down corrupt gun dealers.

Under the legislation, it would be “all but impossible” for ATF to revoke the licenses of rogue dealers, even when they repeatedly break federal gun laws. The legislation would require ATF to show that a federally licensed dealer knew the specific law he/she was violating and intentionally disregarded that law, an unusually high and difficult burden of proof. The bill also creates a classification system for violations, but the ATF would only be allowed to revoke a license based on a “Serious” violation. “Minor” violations, such as “losing” hundreds or perhaps thousands of guns, would not warrant revocation of a dealer’s license. H.R. 2296/S. 941 would also allow dealers who have their licenses revoked to transfer their remaining inventory to their "private collection" and sell these guns for 60 days without conducting background checks on purchasers.

The Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT), had arranged a hearing on S. 941 for September 14, but chose to postpone it because of a “scheduling conflict.” Some speculate it was because of pressure from the Obama administration and grassroots activists who were outraged about Leahy’s priorities. A new date for the hearing has yet to be scheduled. Rep. Bobby Scott (D-VA) is also planning to hold a hearing on H.R. 2296 in the House Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism and Homeland Security, date and time TBD.

Gun rights advocates have argued that H.R. 2296/S. 941 is necessary to prevent “heavy-handed” enforcement by the ATF. The NRA claims that it is all too common for the ATF to revoke licenses for “insignificant technical violations—such as improper use of abbreviations or filing records in the wrong order.” The problem is they have not produced a single example of a case where this occurred.

In truth, the ATF rarely uses its power to revoke federal firearm licenses. In 2007, the agency conducted 10,000 inspections and revoked only 100 licenses—which represents just 0.1% of the total population of federally licensed firearms dealers in the U.S.

So why is the NRA pushing H.R. 2296/S. 941? It is well aware that just 1% of federally licensed gun dealers are the source of more than 57% of guns recovered in crimes nationwide, and this small group of extremely bad apples is who the ATF targets for revocation. The NRA wants to protect their profits, and some of these dealers have extremely close ties to the gun lobby.

Sandy Abrams, a former NRA board member, was cited for more than 900 violations of federal law before his Valley Gun license was revoked in 2006. At the time, Valley Gun was ranked 37th out of 80,000 gun dealers in the country in terms of the number of guns it sold that were later linked to crimes. Almost 500 crime guns were traced back to Abrams’ store in one four-year period alone. The Department of Justice referred to Valley Gun as a “serial violator” and stated that Abrams had “endangered the public by failing to account for hundreds of weapons.” Abrams saw it differently. “Forms fall behind the counter. Or maybe someone throws it away,” he explained to authorities.

It’s clear why the NRA wants H.R. 2296/S. 941 to become law, but the bigger question is why are Democrats moving the legislation? One would think that Democrats would want to motivate their base to vote in the November elections. Gun owners have not traditionally been part of that base. Over the past three presidential elections, voters in gun-owning households have voted Republican 61%-63% of the time. Nor have Democrats received significant largesse from the gun industry. 78% of the money the NRA has contributed in the 2010 election cycle has gone to Republicans. And progressives are certain to take offense at Democrats’ support for an organization that has consistently undermined their agenda (i.e., see the DISCLOSE Act).

Additionally, it seems odd that Democrats would take action on legislation that law enforcement has serious concerns about. The International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) says H.R. 2296/S. 941 would “significantly impede criminal investigations and diminish the ability of law enforcement to protect their communities from the crime and violence associated with the illegal use of firearms.”

The IACP recognizes the obvious: In a country in which illegal firearms trafficking is epidemic, the ATF needs more authority and resources to put corrupt gun dealers out of business, not less. Concerned citizens can call Speaker Nancy Pelosi at (202) 225-0100. Tell her to cancel hearings on the "ATF Reform and Firearms Modernization Act" and table this dangerous legislation immediately.

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