Democrats on the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform accused a high-ranking official at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms on Tuesday of serving the interests of the National Rifle Association, citing as evidence a memo the official had circulated that called for rolling back restrictions on silencers and armor-piercing bullets.
The committee had called Ronald Turk, the ATF’s Associate Deputy Director and second in command, to testify on the agency’s spotty oversight of its confidential informant program, the subject of a recent Justice Department inspector general investigation. But some of the hearing’s most heated moments came when committee members questioned Turk about a controversial white paper he wrote in January, proposing that his agency consider rolling back many of the firearms regulations that the ATF enforces.
Turk’s white paper, dated the day of President Donald Trump’s inauguration, proposed reducing existing regulations, including removing restrictions on the sale of gun silencers, a possible end to the ban on importing some rifles into the United States, and increasing the number of crime guns that must be traced to a licensed dealer before the federal government requires it to answer additional questions about its operations.
“Do you represent the NRA?” asked Representative Gerald Connelly, a Virginia Democrat, his voice rising. “Or do you represent the American people at the ATF?”
Turk began to answer, but Connelly cut him off.
“I represent victims from Virginia Tech,” Connelly said, referencing a 2007 mass shooting at the university. “We buried 6 young people. And I couldn’t explain to them why an ATF … representative might think that legalizing silencers might be a good idea.”
Turk testified that the proposals discussed in his white paper “had been floating around for years.”
“With the change in administration it was our impression that we … could expect a conversation about the regulations within the firearms industry.” he said. “I felt it very important to be able to assemble the ATF executive staff to … have potential positions for the bureau in place should we be asked by the department or the administration.”
Connelly asked whether the NRA, which supports lifting regulations on silencers and armor-piercing bullets, had given input on the paper. Turk said he did not consult with the NRA, but that he’d heard from people in the gun industry who have called for loosening what they view as overly burdensome regulations. A gun show promoters organization, for example, had asked the ATF to allow licensed firearms dealers to sell at gun shows outside of their home states, he said. Under current law, a firearms dealer can travel to a gun show in another state and display firearms — but it can’t sell them. Turk included the recommendation to lift the regulation in the white paper.
ATF officials have said Turk’s paper, which was leaked to The Washington Post, represented his own ideas, not those of the agency, and were not meant for public consumption.
“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.
At the hearing, Representative Val Butler Demings, a Florida Democrat, also took issue with Turk’s proposal that silencer restrictions be relaxed.
“I’m from the Orlando area.” she said. “I’m sure you and everybody in the world knows about the 49 victims who were shot and killed in a nightclub.”
“I wonder, Mr. Turk, what would have happened had the shooter had a silencer on the end of his assault rifle when he entered that club. Do you believe it would have helped the shooter? Or helped the victims, who ran for their lives once they heard the sound of gunfire?”
Turk said his paper does not necessarily represent his personal opinions on the issues, but is rather intended as a starting point for discussion.
Many states have changed their laws on silencers, he said, and perhaps ATF should review its position. Similarly, he said it’s time for a discussion about armor-piercing ammunition.
“We’ve not done a review of that topic for probably close to 20 years,” he said. “The firearms industry has changed, and I think it would be appropriate for us to just have that discussion.”
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