The National Rifle Association sounded the outrage alarm, announcing yet another power grab by President Barack Obama.
On July 27, the NRA’s lobbying arm published a news item on its website, alerting its followers that the president “had once again released a sweeping gun control measure by executive fiat.” The Obama administration, the article declared, had issued an order defining commercial gunsmiths as “manufacturers” if they perform simple work like “threading a barrel or fabricating a custom part for an older firearm.” Such manufacturers must register with a division of the U.S. State Department that regulates the export of weapons and military equipment, or face “onerous criminal penalties,” the article said.
The NRA described the requirement as “new” and declared that the purpose was to put “smaller commercial gunsmithing operations out of business.”
Five days earlier, the Directorate of Defense Trade Controls at the State Department had, in fact, released a set of guidelines that explained what qualifies as gun manufacturing, and what does not. But the guidelines were not new — they were a clarification of existing rules. And they were assembled after a specific request from the National Sports Shooting Federation, a trade group that represents the interests of gun manufacturers.
“In no way was this an executive order,” said a State Department official who spoke to The Trace on the condition of anonymity. “And it wasn’t new. This was a compilation of determinations we had already made in previous cases.”
The willingness of the NRA to present a procedural clarification requested by another gun organization as the latest evidence that the federal government is trying to undermine the Second Amendment shows how eager the group is to fuel the ire of its members. Having successfully fought off all new gun regulations at the federal level for more than two decades, the NRA is constantly on the prowl for new fights that it can wage. It needs to prove that the rights of gun owners are perpetually in jeopardy.
“The NRA’s literature and information that goes to its members always includes some kind of apoplectic prediction that there will be some new gun ban, something that will deprive people of their Second Amendment rights,” says Robert Spitzer, a political scientist and one of the country’s foremost experts on the gun rights movement. “And for the NRA, the question is, what’s the bill or executive order that would do that? They need to keep their base attentive and supporting the cause, so they have to come up with stuff.”
That the State Department has any authority over firearms manufacturing might seem odd, but it’s the law. Under the 1976 Arms Export Control Act, the DDTC is charged with registering all manufacturers of armaments, including those who make submarines and certain types of spacecraft. With respect to guns, the DDTC’s general rule is that anyone who is engaged in the business of producing or enhancing firearms has to, at minimum, register and pay a fee of $2,250.
On January 8, according to State Department officials, the NSSF contacted the DDTC, requesting a meeting about guidelines for gun manufacturing.
Five days later, the two sides got together at the State Department, and an NSSF official explained that its members were seeking clarity on the guidelines, since a clear set of standards did not exist in one place. Where, they wanted to know, was the line between gunsmithing and manufacturing? Who had to register and pay a fee, and who didn’t?
The DDTC completed a draft of the guidelines in early summer. The document, which clarified a series of already-existing regulations and rulings, specified that manufacturing activities can include changes to round capacity, the production of gun parts, or the rechambering of firearms “through machining, cutting, or drilling.” It also said that if a manufacturer’s business involves overseas clients, then the fees would exceed $2,250.
On July 6, representatives from both organizations met again. According to State Department officials, the NSSF was told to let DDTC know if it had any issues with the draft, encouraging feedback. Two weeks went by without a word from the NSSF, and so on July 22, the draft was published.
“We did it because we were asked by the National Sports Shooting Foundation to provide consolidated guidance,” a State Department official said. “It was a public service.”
The NRA, which declined to provide a comment for this story, posted its response to the guidelines five days later, and it quickly gained traction. The Truth About Guns, the popular firearms enthusiast site, published a story headlined, “Obama Issues Executive Order That May Drive Gunsmiths Out of Business.”
“The administration’s latest move serves as a timely reminder of how the politicized and arrogant abuse of executive power can be used to suppress Second Amendment rights and curtail lawful firearm-related commerce,” the piece concluded. “That lesson should not be forgotten when voters go to the polls this November.”
In a newsletter sent out last week, the NSSF announced that the DDTC had published the guidelines, but did not mention they had been published at its request.
“NSSF will continue its effort to remove or reduce this overly burdensome registration fee especially for non-exporting manufacturers,” the newsletter read.
[Photo: AP/The News Herald/Panama City, Florida, Andrew P Johnson]