For the superstitious, Friday the 13th is a day associated with death and misfortune. Someone must’ve opened an umbrella indoors or walked under a ladder, because this year’s first Friday the 13th brought enough misfortune to get any gun owner’s attention. That day, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (BATFE or ATF) released final rule 2021R-08F, “Factoring Criteria for Firearms with Attached ‘Stabilizing Braces,’” easily the Bureau’s single most oppressive action in recent memory. Second Amendment activists are still tirelessly scrutinizing the 293-page document to understand exactly what it means and how it will be enforced. An entire book could be written on this latest final rule and the history behind it; I won’t bother trying to condense all that information into a single blog post. Instead, I’ll use this latest action as an example to prove why ATF has become destructive and must be reformed from top to bottom if not abolished entirely.
Although ATF has its roots in the Prohibition Unit of the Department of the Treasury, the Bureau has only existed in its modern form since the early 1970s. Like its prohibition-era predecessors, ATF has spent decades harshly enforcing unpopular laws and ensuring the government takes its proverbial pound of flesh at every turn. Per the “firearms” part of its name, the Bureau is tasked with enforcing all Federal gun control laws, and an important part of that duty is to ensure licensed dealers comply with those laws. To this end, each field office is empowered to conduct an audit of any licensed dealer within its jurisdiction. An audit requires the dealer to temporarily cease operations and pull out every written firearm transaction record for the field agents to comb through, and if any irregularities surface, the dealer’s license can be revoked. In theory, this process is used to catch dealers who knowingly sell to criminals, but in practice, it has been used as a tool to bully honest dealers.
During the first fifteen years of ATF’s existence, field agents used their audit power to gang up and harass dealers they personally didn’t like. They’d order an audit, forcing the dealer to close the doors of the business for several days, then after finding nothing out of sorts, order another audit anyway. By ordering a store to stay closed for an extended period to comply with back-to-back audits, ATF agents would force it out of business despite all the books being clean. This underhanded tactic of Federal agents destroying businesses on a whim was so widespread that the Firearm Owners Protection Act of 1986 attempted to halt it by requiring field offices to wait a year before auditing a dealer again if they’d found nothing wrong the last time.
This additional restriction on audits has not stopped ATF from harassing honest dealers. Under the current administration, FFL revocations have more than quintupled; whereas field agents were previously directed to help dealers fix simple clerical errors, the administration’s zero-tolerance policy has made such errors grounds for a license to be taken away. Forget to dot an “i” or cross a “t” and you’ll lose your business and livelihood if you run a gun shop. The administration has decided that it wants to persecute honest dealers, and using ATF as its enforcement arm, it has been able to do just that.
BATFE’s routine abuse of the audit process is justification enough for it to be reformed, but its so-called “final rules” prove the Bureau should be abolished. As a part of the Department of Justice, ATF is a law enforcement body—it exists solely to ensure people comply with a certain set of laws passed by Congress and signed by the President. Its power and authority should by all rights end there, but as those of us who have been paying attention know, that is unfortunately not the case. Not content with simply doing its job, ATF has an utterly unprecedented amount of leeway in interpreting the very laws it was created to enforce, publishing its interpretations and re-interpretations in a series of “final rules.” With this power, unelected bureaucrats with no accountability are able to ban devices they have no authority to regulate, with little to no recourse for the citizens the Bureau’s capricious decisions victimize. By being allowed to re-interpret existing law, ATF effectively creates new laws according to its own pleasures as well as the whims of the President. Although “final rules” do not come from elected officials and do not pass through our republic’s formal legislative system, they are enforced as though they are, making ATF arguably more powerful within its area of responsibility than even Congress itself.
As the Declaration of Independence clearly states, “whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive… it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it.” A law enforcement agency conjuring up its own laws and prosecuting the “criminals” those fake laws create is blatantly destructive; we have a right to remove that threat to our democracy. Even without significant alteration to the actual gun laws on the books, the Bureau can and should be gutted, as it has repeatedly demonstrated that it uses its power to abuse and harass innocent people. Of the more than 237,000 comments ATF received in response to a draft of its latest “final rule,” fewer than one in ten indicated support. If Americans are so unilaterally opposed to their aggressive overreach, why don’t we do something about it already?