In what appears to fly in the face of the Bureau’s prior attitudes towards enforcement of gun laws, a white paper by BATFE Associate Deputy Director Ronald Turk was recently leaked which proposed loosening or modifying gun regulations in sixteen ways, to be discussed below. If you have not yet read Nicholas’ post on the leak, you can do that, and also follow the link here to the white paper itself. In this article, I’ll be taking a (hopefully) brief look at what the white paper means and why it’s so significant (and it is significant, don’t get me wrong).
First, we must understand what the white paper isn’t. It is not a new set of regulations, and it is not an announcement that regulations will soon change. It’s more like a memorandum containing suggestions that could be implemented in the future. Indeed, the entire document is worded this way, making it very clear. It even says, in the executive summary:
This paper serves to provide the new Administration and the Bureau multiple options to consider and discuss regarding firearms regulations specific to ATF. These general thoughts provide potential ways to reduce or modify regulations, or suggest changes that promote commerce and defend the Second Amendment without significant negative impact on ATF’s mission to fight violent firearms crime and regulate the firearms industry. This white paper is intended to provide ideas and provoke conversation; it is not guidance or policy of any kind.
So we’re not looking at something that immediately changes the law, or even indicates that the law will soon be changed. However, even though it is just a list of suggestions, what those suggestions are and how they are written may indicate a major shift in attitude may be occurring within the ATF. Let’s quickly summarize what these sixteen suggestions are, first (I have bolded the most interesting suggestions):
- Allow/facilitating gunshow-only dealers to apply for an Federal Firearms License
- Reform the process of classifying ammunition as “armor piercing handgun ammunition” to allow manufacturers to produce new armor-piercing rifle ammunition while maintaining the exemption for SS109/M855, as well as an acknowledgement that many rounds not classified as “armor piercing” will still penetrate body armor.
- Work with the State Department and Trump Administration to import surplus C&R US service arms for sale to the American public.
- Allow greater flexibility to the ATF to grant FFL/SOTs permission to transfer post-86 machine guns to other FFL/SOTs working for DoD agents and in the film industry.
- Remove the clause in the pistol stabilizing brace (PSB) ruling that lists shouldering the brace as an NFA violation.
- Revise the “sporting purpose” wording to accommodate so-called “Modern Sporting Rifles” within that category.
- Create a database of easily accessible and understood firearms regulations and rulings.
- Consider reclassifying silencers as non-NFA items, revising the definition of “silencer”.
- Allow FFLs to transfer firearms out-of-state (such as at gun shows in a neighboring state).
- Discuss changing Destructive Device rulings to better differentiate between launchers and munitions (e.g. by allowing manufacturers to register whole lots of munitions as DDs, rather than the individual munitions).
- Change the Demand Letter 2 (DL2) requirement to a number between 10 and 25 firearms (15 suggested), from the current 10.
- Eliminate Demand Letter 3.
- Review and possibly discard the current proposal to have FFLs retain records indefinitely, from the current regulation of 20 years.
- Allow FFLs to run NICS checks on potential employees.
- Push for a Presidentially-nominated, Senate-confirmed ATF Director.
- Remove or amend old, obsolete regulations like the 1994 Assault Weapons Ban
Whew! Got all that? Good!
With that out of the way, several significant aspects of the white paper jump out at me. First, much of the language is structured to indicate what appear to be four major priorities:
- Appeasing a newer, blacker gun industry.
- Avoiding litigation over some of the less legally rigorous ATF regulations currently on the books.
- Reducing ATF workload.
- Transitioning from the Obama administration to the Trump administration
Whether these priorities are the raison d’être for the white paper, or just language within which pro-gun reforms are cloaked, I don’t know, but they do seem to be things that concerned the paper’s authors in some way. The implications of the individual suggestions themselves, should they become actual rulings, should be obvious. Not only would rulings along these lines substantially reduce the regulatory burden on gun owners, importers, and dealers, they would also considerably clean up many of the most nonsensical areas of current firearms regulations.
As a prime example of this, consider the sporting purpose clause, which has probably never prevented a crime, much less a loss of human life. It is a regulation that simply wastes everyone’s time and money with conversions of importable “sporting purpose”-classified weapons to unimportable configurations. What sense does it make for FN (singling them out for demonstration purposes) to have to import SCARs in a configuration that satisfies “sporting purpose”, just for their US contingent to convert them to their original style once in the country? It does not, and in a refreshing change of pace, the white paper recognizes this and suggests that the “sporting purpose” definition be revised to include weapons like the semiautomatic SCAR in its proper configuration.
All this then raises the question: Given the history of the ATF acting as downright obstructionist to the firearms industry and firearms owners, why this, and why now? Well, I can only speculate, so let’s get right to doing that.
Since the white paper was the work of ATF ADDr Ronald Turk (or at least his name is on it), it may be that Turk harbors these sentiments himself, and simply feels he is better equipped to act under a nominally pro-gun administration than he was under the previous one. I do not know very much about Turk’s previous career, but it seems reasonable to at least speculate about this, given that he is a career Air Force man, went to school in Texas at Sam Houston State University, and lists the National Rifle Association among his groups on his LinkedIn profile. It should be emphasized that Turk himself may not have written the white paper, this was likely the work of others working under him. Therefore, how much of its content reflects his feelings isn’t known, but there do seem to be some dots to connect regarding Turk’s affiliations and the paper’s contents.
There is also another angle here: Something that has baffled myself and others regarding the ATF’s past belligerences towards the gun industry was just how bad those actions were for the Bureau itself. Fighting the fight over “green tip” ammunition in late 2014 and early 2015 did nothing for the Bureau but reduce its credibility and strengthen the position of its opponents, and the same is also true for many other positions, regulations, and even operations undertaken by the ATF which need not be mentioned here. Perhaps Turk’s (or rather, the authors’) angle on this is one of streamlining the Bureau and making it more competitive in such an obviously pro-gun world. Baiting the gun industry for no obvious gain has proven over the past decade to be simply a losing proposition for the ATF, while obsolete regulations (like the inclusion of suppressors within the NFA) have increased the Bureau’s workload in ways that are completely non-advantageous to it. Therefore, these regulations may be less about pushing pro-gun regulations than they are about creating a leaner, more effective ATF which, if we take the white paper at its word, is better able to combat violence:
There are many regulatory changes or modifications that can be made by or through ATF that would have an immediate, positive impact on commerce and industry without significantly hindering ATFs mission or adversely affecting public safety. There are also areas where adjustments to policy or processes could improve ATF operations. Alleviating some of these concerns would continue to support ATF’s relationships across the firearms and sporting industry, and allow ATF to further focus precious personnel and resources on the mission to combat gun violence.
A friend and colleague of mine had yet another take: This may simply be the ATF covering their backside against an administration that has, though young, become knowing for firing first and asking questions later. While I don’t doubt this is a general concern among bureaucrats of every stripe, I disagree that the white paper rings especially loudly of this sort of panic. Still, it’s worth asking: Is this paper just an excellent example of CYA?
What do you think of the ATF white paper, why it was written, and what implications it has for the future of US gun law? Be sure to let us know in the comments!