by Joseph P. Tartaro | Executives Editor
On Feb. 6, the Washington Post first made public the fact that the second-highest-ranking official at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) had written an 11-page “unofficial” document exploring a more than a dozen possible revisions to federal gun control laws.
The “white paper” by Ronald B. Turk, associate deputy director and chief operating officer of the ATF, calls for removing federal restrictions on the sale of suppressors; allowing licensed gun dealers to have more guns used in crimes traced to their stores before the federal government requires additional information from the dealer; and initiating a study on lifting the ban on importation of so-called assault weapons.
Titled “Options to Reduce or Modify Firearms Regulations,” the proposal opens with the wording of the Second Amendment and is dated Jan. 20.
As soon as the document was made public it raised hopes among pro-gun organizations and fears among the gun control crowd.
“This white paper offers a disturbing series of giveaways to the gun industry that would weaken regulatory oversight of the gun industry without adequate consideration of the impact on public safety,” said Chelsea Parsons, vice president of guns and crime policy at the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank, according to The Post.
“ATF has long described its regulatory function as a core part of its law enforcement mission to fight gun crime, yet this paper seems to prioritize reducing perceived burdens on the gun industry over an interest in protecting public safety from the illegal diversion of firearms,” Parsons said.
While the white paper has the ATF seal on its cover and lists Turk’s name and ATF title, an agency spokeswoman told The Post it doesn’t represent the views of the ATF.
“It’s simply his opinion, and it’s to generate dialogue,” said ATF spokeswoman Jan Kemp.
Several of the reduced firearms regulations are supported by the National Rifle Association, which has lobbied for some of the proposals for years, The Post noted, reminding its readers that one supporter of relaxed regulations on silencers is Donald Trump Jr., the president’s oldest son, who is a hunter.
“Silencers are very rarely used in criminal shootings,” the white paper states. “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.”
In 1989, the George H.W. Bush administration banned the import of so-called semi-automatic assault rifles. Turk’s white paper, which refers to them as “modern sporting rifles,” notes that their use has “increased exponentially in sport shooting.”
“Those firearm types are now standard for hunting activities,” according to the ATF white paper. “These restrictions have placed many limitations on importers, while at the same time imposing a heavy workload” on the ATF.
In a related issue, the white paper proposes a revision to the Gun Control Act’s “sporting purposes” standard which, as currently interpreted, prohibits the importation of many desirable rifles, shotguns and handguns.
Federal regulations stipulate that federally licensed gun dealers who sold 10 or more guns used in crimes in the previous three years should receive a “demand letter” from the ATF that compels them to provide the agency with more information about the guns they have sold. The Turk paper states that increasing the number of crime guns sold before the ATF sends a demand letter “would likely have a positive impact on the firearms industry and still meet program objectives.”
“ATF has used its demand letter authority sparingly to collect crucial information from certain licensed gun dealers that can help identify illegal gun trafficking operations,” Parsons said. “These letters pose a minimal burden on gun dealers that is far outweighed by the benefits this information offers to law enforcement, and they should remain in force.”
Turk’s paper states that its purpose is “to provide the new administration and the Bureau multiple options to consider and discuss regarding firearms regulations.”
“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 paper states.
“Since the sunset of the Assault Weapons ban in 2004, the use of AR-15s, AK-style, and similar rifles now commonly referred to as “modern sporting rifles” has increased exponentially in sport shooting. ATF could re-examine its almost 20-year-old study to bring it up to date with the sport shooting landscape of today, which is vastly different than what it was years ago. Action shooting sports and organizations such as 3 Gun and the United States Practical Shooting Association (USPSA) have also drastically expanded in recent years.”
Turk’s document also suggests a way to resolve the issue of pistol stabilizing braces.
The NRA notes that in recent years firearm owners have increasingly made use of products like Sig Sauer’s SBX or SB15 pistol stabilizers that have proven a boon to disabled shooters.
Re-importation of defense surplus is another issue addressed in Turk’s paper. Longtime NRA supporters will be familiar with the long-running effort to repatriate tens of thousands of M1 Garands and hundreds of thousands of M1 carbines from South Korea that were blocked by the State Department.
Turk makes it clear that there is no clear public safety reason why taxpayer-funded US-origin C&R defense articles should be denied re-importation to the American public, while many non-US-origin C&R items are approved.
The NRA noted that overall, Turk’s ATF white paper is an important contribution to the development of a more intelligent firearms regulation regime, informed by actual experience in administering ATF regulations.
However, keep in mind that Turk’s paper only opens discussions. Whether it receives attention in the Trump White House, Congress or the Justice Department remains to be seen. It certainly gained the attention of partisans on both sides of the gun rights debate.