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Law Enforcement

ATF Executive Pitches a More Gun Industry-Friendly Bureau

Former officials say the memo could be a pitch for the agency's top job.

The second-highest ranking official at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives is proposing that the agency roll back restrictions on silencers, armor-piercing bullets, and the import of some foreign-made rifles, as well as reconsider efforts to force gun sellers to keep old sales records.

The recommendations, put forth in an internal agency white paper written by Ronald Turk, the associate deputy director and chief operating officer of the ATF, and first obtained by The Washington Post, broadly align with the wishes of the gun industry. The memo is dated January 20, the day President Donald Trump was inaugurated, and is addressed to the new administration. The text of the Second Amendment is at the top of the first page.

“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,” the memo reads.

Turk argued that the proposals would ease the burden on the ATF to enforce restrictions that have little public-safety benefit, and free up resources to fight crime.

Enforcing the current tight restrictions on the sale of silencers, for example, costs the agency more than $1 million a year in overtime pay each year, and occupies the time of more than 30 full-time staff — and even with that effort, there is an eight-month backlog on processing requests.

“Given the lack of criminality associated with silencers, it is reasonable to conclude they should not be viewed as a threat to public safety,” he wrote.

Two former ATF officials said it is unheard of for someone at Turk’s level to write a general memo espousing his personal opinions about gun regulations. They said it reads like a pitch to the Trump administration for the agency director’s job.

The ATF has been without a permanent director since 2015, when B. Todd Jones resigned following a controversial proposal by the agency to ban bullets that could pierce bullet-proof vests. The agency abandoned that effort in response to pressure from Congress.

Experts say the gun lobby has long played a powerful role behind the scenes in blocking candidates for the director’s job. Turk’s proposals align with lobbying positions taken by the two most powerful gun lobbying groups: the National Shooting Sports Foundation — the gun industry’s trade group — and the National Rifle Association.  

Chelsea Parsons, vice president of guns and crime policy at the liberal think tank The Center for American Progress, said the memo sets a dangerous tone.

It does seems to be a wish list of the gun lobby,” Parsons said. “It seems to prioritize relieving these perceived burdens on the gun industry without a full consideration of any impact on public safety.”

In an email, a spokesperson for the ATF said that the recommendations put forth in the white paper “are merely the ideas and opinions of the writer (Mr Turk)” and were “created to promote dialogue within the agency and not intended to be public.”

Here are Turk’s most consequential recommendations.

Commissioning a new study on whether military-style semiautomatic rifles have “sporting purposes.”

In 1989, following public outrage after a schoolyard shooting in Stockton, California, the federal government clamped down on importation of military-style semiautomatic rifles like the AK-47. A 1998 ATF study reaffirmed the basis for that ban, concluding that such weapons had no “sporting purposes” and maintaining the ban. Turk’s memo proposes revisiting this decision.

While the 1998 study used a “narrow interpretation” that limited sporting purposes solely to hunting and organized, competitive target shooting, Turk suggests this should be changed in light of the surge of interest in such of weapons since the federal assault-weapon ban expired in 2004 and given the growing popularity of competitions testing tactical abilities.

If the ATF determined these rifles to have sporting purposes, that would allow foreign companies like Sig Sauer or Heckler & Koch to directly import their rifles. Currently, overseas gun makers must open American subsidiaries and manufacture military style rifles within the United States.

Reclassifying silencers under the National Firearms Act of 1934

A silencer, or suppressor, is a device that can be affixed to the barrel of a firearm that reduces noise and muzzle flash. It is among the most heavily regulated firearms accessory. Right now, obtaining one requires a $200 tax, a background check, and a lengthy application process that can last up to 12 months.

That hasn’t stopped American consumers: As of August 2016, more than 900,000 suppressors were registered in the United States.

Such demand has put a strain on the ATF, Turk wrote.

“NFA processing times are widely viewed by applicants and the industry as far too long, resulting in numerous complaints to Congress,” he said. “Since silencers account for the vast majority of NFA applications, the most direct way to reduce processing times is to reduce the number of silencer applications.”

A federal bill called the Hearing Protection Act, sponsored by Republicans in both the House of Representatives and the Senate, would remove silencers from the list of items heavily regulated by the National Firearms Act. The gun industry’s trade group and the NRA have both lobbied in support of the bill.

“Given the lack of criminality associated with silencers, it is reasonable to conclude that they should not be viewed as a threat to public safety necessitating NFA classification,” Turk wrote.

Critics assert that the noise guns make provide a valuable warning to bystanders and law enforcement that a shooting is underway.

Allowing the sale of some armor-piercing bullets

Federal law bans the sale of ammunition that can pierce body armor when fired from a pistol (many types of rifle ammunition can pierce armor). The restriction became law in 1986, when President Ronald Reagan signed a law aimed at combatting “cop-killer” bullets amid fears of rising gang crime.

In 2014, the Obama administration set off a firestorm after it published new guidelines on armor-piercing bullets that would have eliminated a long-standing exemption for so-called green-tip bullets, popular with users of the AR-15 rifle. While the ATF said that guideline was the result of a “publishing error,” many gun advocates suspected it was a sneaky attempt to ban one of the most common rounds in the country.

Turk suggested eliminating this uncertainty about the popular bullet by making the green-tip exemption permanent by releasing new guidelines for determining what rounds qualify as armor piercing. 

Reconsidering a proposed rule to require gun dealers to keep records indefinitely.

According to the white paper, the ATF has a regulation pending with the Department of Justice to require Federal Firearms License holders (FFLs) to retain records indefinitely. Current law allows FFLs to destroy records that are more than 20 years old.

Records of gun sales are valuable to the ATF and other law enforcement agencies because they are required to trace a firearms purchase.

According to Turk, 1,200 traces a year over the last five years have been unsuccessful because of destroyed records. However, he recommends revisiting the proposed rule change.

“While such an extension is arguably a viable law enforcement intelligence tool, much of the firearms industry is opposed to such a change and a closer review of this proposal could be beneficial,” Turk wrote.

Making it easier for gun dealers to sell firearms across state lines, and do business at gun shows and on the Internet

Under current law, a firearms dealer can travel to a gun show in another state and display firearms — but it can’t sell them. The dealer can only take a customer’s order, and ship the purchased firearm to another dealer in the buyer’s state, where a background check is completed and the weapon retrieved.

In the memo, Turk proposed allowing dealers to travel out of state and sell directly to consumers, as long as they respect all local gun laws, such as assault weapons bans. That would mean a gun dealer would be able to conduct a background check in another state, which is not currently allowed.

Such a change “would have no detrimental effect on public safety and still provide ATF a means to trace firearms,” Turk wrote. “It would also be viewed favorably by the broader firearms community.”

Turk also suggested issuing guidance on how dealers who sell exclusively at gun shows and on the Internet could obtain a license.

“The marketplace has changed significantly in recent years, and ATF’s guidance to FFLs on these issues has not kept pace with developments in commerce,” he wrote.