A national firearms trade association that boasts more than 7,000 members is helping finance a lawsuit in which a Texas gun dealer is challenging a federal reporting requirement for the sale of long rifles.
The Connecticut-based National Shooting Sports Foundation Inc., whose mission statement is to “promote, protect and preserve hunting and the shooting sports,” is helping finance a legal team for Golden States Tactical, a northern California firearms seller and NSSF member, in a lawsuit that was originally filed by San Antonio-based 10-Ring Precision Inc. The company took action in August after the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives issued a rule last year requiring licensed firearms dealers in Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California to report to the agency any time two or more long rifles are sold to the same buyer within a five-day period. The requirement pertains to rifles with calibers greater than .22 and capable of holding a detachable clip.
The bureau says the move is a good-faith effort to curb the illegal transport of firearms to violence-plagued Mexico. They point to a similar rule that has been in place for handguns as proof that the latest policy isn’t an assault on Second Amendment rights.
Sellers, however, say the requirement is government intrusion hurting their businesses and a power grab by the federal government, which invoked the rule without congressional approval.
“I am basically being asked to do something other than what is required by law by the ATF,” said Robby Betts, a licensed firearms dealer with Golden States Tactical. “I’ve got people not wanting to buy guns now.”
Betts also points to the Operation Fast and Furious debacle — in which federal agents tried to target straw purchasers of guns, letting hundreds of weapons fall into the hands of Mexican drug-cartel operatives — as evidence that the government should have no greater say in gun regulation.
“There is no reason for me to have to worry about guns running in to Mexico, especially when the people that were sending the guns to Mexico were with the United States government,” he said.
A spokesman for the U.S. Department of Justice declined to comment on the case because it is ongoing.
The NSSF filed a separate suit in a D.C. district court after the rule was issued in August, but a federal judge ruled in the ATF’s favor and determined the agency did not overstep its authority. That case is on appeal, but NSSF vice president and general counsel Lawrence Keane told The Texas Tribune that the association joined the Texas suit in the hopes that that case, which will be heard in the Western District of Texas, will have a favorable outcome.
“We don’t question the goal of ATF in trying to combat the illegal acquisition of firearms by drug cartels in Mexico. We don’t debate that,” Keane said. “We think that ATF is exceeding the authority under the Gun Control Act and our concern is that if ATF has this authority, then there is no record that ATF cannot request or demand of a licensee anywhere in the United States, not just along the border, for any period of time and for any reason.”
Keane and Alex Hamilton, the president of 10-Ring Precision, also argue that requiring the rule for the estimated 8,700 gun dealers in only four border states casts a blind eye toward the fact that weapons traffickers can purchase firearms from neighboring states.
“I have been told directly in personal conversations with high-ranking ATF officials that firearms are being acquired in Oklahoma, which is not subject to this reporting requirement,” Keane said. “Yet dealers located in northern California” and other points far from the border are burdened by the reporting requirement.
In September, Jorge Blanco of Stillwater, Okla., was charged with one count of conspiracy to defraud the ATF and five counts of making false statements on federal forms in his role as an alleged straw purchaser, according to a news release from the ATF’s Dallas office, whose jurisdiction includes Oklahoma. Blanco is accused of being part of an operation that illegally acquired more than 30 weapons for shipment to Mexico, including 29 AK-47 semi-automatic rifles and eight Chinese SKS 7.62 caliber semi-automatic rifles.
But the same field office indicates Texas is more of a haven for illegal purchasing than its neighbors. Last month, 10 people, including nine Texans, were convicted of illegally purchasing weapons for shipment to Mexico. In November, Randy Aguilar of McAllen and Miguel Mejia of Penitas, Texas, were sentenced to 46 months and 30 months, respectively, for their straw purchases of 52 firearms, the majority of which were AK-47s. The ATF said in a statement that the weapons “were being trafficked and used or possessed for another felony offense.”
Keane says the ATF requirement — and its potential to force illegal purchasers to buy only one rifle at a time — actually hinders law-abiding gun sellers from being “the first line of defense.”
“You are going to have a dealer that is not going to see activity that they can report to ATF because they [straw purchasers] are not going to come in and try to buy more than one firearm where the dealer would say, ‘Okay, I am going to call ATF,’” he said. “If you ask ATF they would say the dealers are very cooperative, they are very helpful, they provide information to ATF, they are the primary source on information that leads to illegal firearms trafficking investigations.”
Although it faces a formidable foe in the gun lobby, the ATF found an ally in the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence. The center, named after James Brady, the former aide to President Ronald Reagan who was paralyzed 31 years ago after a gunman tried to assassinate the president, filed an amicus brief supporting the ATF and the reporting requirement.
In it, the center argues that the ATF has the ability to issue demand letters under current law, specifically the 1968 Gun Control Act, and that the demand letters the ATF has issued are “narrowly tailored.” Gun sellers, they add, are already required to record the information.
“For a firearm sale, licensees must record and preserve the name and address of the purchaser, the date of sale, the name of the gun manufacturer or importer, and the model, serial number, type, and caliber or gauge of the gun,” the brief explains. “Because the federal government does not keep records of gun sales, these dealer records are crucial to law enforcement's ability to trace crime guns and solve crimes.”
It also cites a recent Government Accountability Report that states 2,000 guns flow into Mexico daily, and that 70 percent of the firearms seized there and traced come from Texas, California and Arizona.
Statistics, however, are an additional point of contention. Gun supporters and sportsmen often argue that the data is flawed or inflated to disproportionately blame the U.S. for the carnage in Mexico.