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Anti-gun Senators and Mayors Push Biden on Executive Gun Controls

Monday, February 22, 2021

Anti-gun Senators and Mayors Push Biden on Executive Gun Controls

Following a year filled with the COVID-19 pandemic and widespread civil unrest, Americans are in no rush to enact further gun controls. According to data from a January Gallup poll, 42 percent of Americans are satisfied with the current gun control laws. The poll also found that 9 percent of Americans are dissatisfied with current firearms laws, but want them to be made less strict. Therefore, according to the survey, a majority of Americans (51 percent) either want gun control laws to remain the same or to be made less restrictive.

Sensing a dearth of popular support for their gun control schemes, anti-gun politicians are urging President Joe Biden to act unilaterally to restrict firearms. This week, a group of 12 Senate Democrats led by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) sent a letter to Biden that urged the president to nominate a permanent director to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) and empower them to enact a raft of executive gun control measures. In a similar vein, a group of big-city mayors that included Chicago’s Lori Lightfoot penned a CNN opinion piece that called on the president to attack gun rights through executive action.

According to the Senators’ letter, “the next Director of the ATF must be committed to enacting policies that will allow the agency to fulfill its mission to protect communities and combat gun violence.” According to the group, in order to do this the next director must adopt the following priorities: 

1. Implement regulations to stop the proliferation of ghost guns.

2. Issue a new regulation clarifying which gun sellers must get dealer licenses and run

background checks.

3. Modernize, strengthen, and prioritize oversight of the gun industry.

4. Ensure public transparency by disseminating robust statistical data.

5. Update critical reports and develop new ways to affirmatively share information about

gun trafficking and the source of crime guns.

6. Require FFLs to notify the Department of Justice every time they complete a gun sale

where a background check has been initiated but not completed to ensure the

prioritization of completing background checks where a sale has been made.

Some of the items are vague, but others directly correspond to policies that have repeatedly been rejected by the American public through their elected representatives.

The first item on the anti-gun senators’ wish list would restrict Americans’ right to make their own firearms for personal use by further regulating unfinished frames and receivers.

Concerning these items, the current federal statute and regulations are clear. Federal law defines a “firearm” to include “any weapon (including a starter gun) which will or is designed to or may readily be converted to expel a projectile by the action of an explosive” and “the frame or receiver of any such weapon.” In the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR), “firearm frame or receiver” is further defined as “That part of a firearm which provides housing for the hammer, bolt or breechblock, and firing mechanism, and which is usually threaded at its forward portion to receive the barrel.”

In order to target unfinished frames and receivers, ATF would likely attempt to broaden the definition of “firearm frame or receiver” in the CFR. Such a change is inadvisable and would at the very least require a formal rulemaking under the Administrative Procedure Act.

By targeting the materials Americans use to make their own firearms, ATF would be striking at the core of the Second Amendment right in a manner that has no basis in the text, history, and tradition of the right. Since long before the founding, Americans have enjoyed the right to make their own firearms for personal use without government interference. 

The second wish list item is something of an Obama-era retread. Having failed to criminalize the private transfer of firearms by means of legislation in 2013, in 2015 the Obama administration explored restricting the private transfer of firearms through executive action.

Federal law (18 U.S.C. § 922(a)) provides,

(a) It shall be unlawful--

(1) for any person--

(A) except a licensed importer, licensed manufacturer, or licensed dealer, to engage in the business of importing, manufacturing, or dealing in firearms, or in the course of such business to ship, transport, or receive any firearm in interstate or foreign commerce; or

Therefore, a person may not “engage in the business” of dealing firearms without a Federal Firearms License. Federal Firearms Licensees (FFLs), of course, are required to consult the FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) before transferring a firearm to a non-dealer.

The term “engaged in the business,” as it pertains to firearms dealers, is defined by statute (18 U.S.C. § 921(a)(21)) as,

a person who devotes time, attention, and labor to dealing in firearms as a regular course of trade or business with the principal objective of livelihood and profit through the repetitive purchase and resale of firearms, but such term shall not include a person who makes occasional sales, exchanges, or purchases of firearms for the enhancement of a personal collection or for a hobby, or who sells all or part of his personal collection of firearms;

Notice that the language does not contain a specific number of firearm sales or transfers that triggers the definition of “engaged in the business.” The language in the definition was carefully crafted to exempt individuals selling and trading firearms in and out of their private collections, no matter the frequency or volume. Rather, it is when a person sells firearms “as a regular course of trade or business with the principal objective of livelihood and profit” that a person must obtain Federal Firearms License.

Enacting this statutory definition of “engaged in the business” was a key component of the Firearms Owners’ Protection Act of 1986. Prior to FOPA, ATF had targeted private individuals at gun shows who sold a few firearms out of their private collections on multiple occasions.

In the end, the Obama administration correctly determined that they did not have the authority to limit the private transfer of firearms by executive fiat. Instead, the administration issued a 15-page guidance document that summarized existing law concerning firearms dealing.

Though vague, wish list items four and five appear targeted at the Tiahrt Amendment. This important piece of legislation restricts the dissemination of certain law enforcement data on firearms traces. Prior to the Tiahrt Amendment, the often-misleading data had been abused by gun control advocates to push gun control measures and attack the firearms industry.

Further, the release of this sensitive data had the potential to imperial law enforcement officers. Writing in support of the Tiahrt Amendment, the National President of the Fraternal Order of Police explained “releasing sensitive information about pending cases can jeopardize the integrity of an investigation or even place the lives of undercover officers in danger.” Though the amendment restricts the dissemination of trace data, it does ensure law enforcement can access this information for legitimate investigative purposes.

Item six is an attempt to undermine the NICS’s three-day safety-valve provision by intimidating FFLs into not transferring a firearm even when they are permitted by law to do so.

Under federal law, if a NICS check is delayed for further research and the FBI’s NICS section is unable to determine that the prospective firearm transferee is prohibited from possessing firearms under federal or state law three business days after the check was initiated by a firearms dealer, the firearms transfer may proceed at the dealer's option. This provision encourages the FBI to conduct NICS checks in an efficient manner and prevents the government from arbitrarily denying an individual their Second Amendment rights through an indefinite delay. According to the 2019 NICS Operations Report only 70 percent of NICS checks that year resulted in an "instant determination," with the remaining 30 percent requiring some analysis or additional research. 

The proposed requirement that FFLs report lawful firearm transfers to the Department of Justice, who through ATF has control over their license, is an obvious attempt to bully gun dealers into cutting off this vital safety-valve. Moreover, there is no statutory language supporting such a scheme. 

In addition to Mayor Lightfoot, the CNN column was authored by United States Conference of Mayors (USCM) President and Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, and Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott. In the piece, the mayors offered a vaguer call for executive action than their more sophisticated federal allies, but explicitly demanded action on “ghost guns” and “strengthening the background check system.”

As the piece pointed out, the mayors are all members of finance tycoon Michael Bloomberg’s gun control group Mayors Against Illegal Guns. Moreover, the group contended that their anti-gun initiative was the result of the winter meeting of the USCM.

The USCM is a handgun prohibitionist organization. In June 1972, USCM adopted a policy resolution on handgun control that called for the abolition of private handgun ownership. The resolution stated,

NOW THEREFORE BE IT RESOLVED that the United States Conference of Mayors takes a position of leadership and urges national legislation against the manufacture, importation, sale, and private possession of handguns, except for use by law enforcement personnel, military and sportsmen clubs;

In 2008, USCM joined with Legal Community Against Gun Violence (now Giffords) in a friend of the court brief in the U.S. Supreme Court Case District of Columbia v. Heller that argued in favor of upholding Washington, D.C.’s unconstitutional handgun ban. 

It is unsurprising that members of a group that believes the Second Amendment does not constrain their power to enact gun control would believe that the U.S. Constitution and federal law should not constrain President Biden’s.

In late 2015, Obama tasked his White House with doing everything within their lawful authority to pursue gun control through executive action. Deputy Press Secretary Eric Schultz said of Obama’s administrative gun control efforts, “he has asked his team to scrub existing legal authorities to see if there’s any additional action we can take administratively…The President has made clear he’s not satisfied with where we are, and expects that work to be completed soon.” In remarks announcing the new actions, Obama stated “we’re going to do everything we can to ensure the smart and effective enforcement of gun safety laws that are already on the books…”Further, a press release that accompanied the announcement of these measures, stated, “The President and Vice President are committed to using every tool at the Administration’s disposal to reduce gun violence.”

The executive branch has not been granted further power to regulate firearms since the Obama administration “scrub[bed]” the law for avenues to attack gun owners by presidential fiat. The measures advanced by this anti-gun cadre of U.S. Senators and mayors are willful perversions of federal law that NRA stands ready to oppose.

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