The ATF Improvement and Modernization Act of 2020: A Bleak Sign of Things to Come

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In 2020, Senator Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) sponsored S. 4841: a bill intended to drastically expand the size and scope of the federal government’s ability to infringe on our gun rights. If passed, the bill would grant more authority to the ATF, a grossly bloated agency already notorious for abusing the Peoples’ right to keep and bear arms. A few of the major impacts the bill would  include things like elimination of the Tiahrt Amendment, lowering the standards for revoking federal firearms licenses, preventing business owners from presenting evidence in certain adjudicative proceedings, and allowing the ATF to neglect its obligation to act on import-ability determinations for foreign-made firearms. Though the likelihood of this bill passing at the midnight hour is slim, it serves as a sign of anti-gun maneuvering to come over the next four years.

Since its implementation in 2003, anti-gun activists have sought to eliminate the Tiahrt Amendment, which prevents the release of firearms trace database information to anyone outside of law enforcement and prosecutors. The reason for opposing the amendment is simple: if anti-gun activists can gain access to database information, they will use it to harass gun owners and to bring additional, frivolous lawsuits against firearms manufacturers. The information would also be used to supplement biased “gun violence” research in an attempt to establish a scientific basis for anti-gun legislation. Because the ATF database establishes a firearms chain of custody, it already serves as a de facto gun registry, but thanks to regulations on its use, along with limits on FFL recordkeeping requirements, it would be less practical to use it for continuous surveillance purposes. Nonetheless, this has not stopped politicians from trying to enhance recordkeeping to eliminate privacy for gun owners. A great example of this is H.R. 5717.

Not only do authoritarian politicians want full access to your information, they also want to track what you say and do on the internet. Without a warrant. In what can only be characterized as an extension of the unpatriotic PATRIOT Act, the TAPS Act was introduced by Republican politicians in 2019 to develop a national strategy for monitoring social media activity and flagging “ individuals who are exhibiting patterns of concerning behavior that indicates an interest, motive, intention, or capability of carrying out an act of violence.” It would be reasonable to assume that any discussion or display of interest in firearms would be weaponized against by Big Brother.

If anti-gun politicians are unable to prevent individuals from accessing firearms by violating the Fourth Amendment, they will attempt to do so by permitting the harassment and obstruction of firearms businesses to cut off access to commercial avenues for firearms acquisition. One of the reasons for the Firearm Owners Protection Act of 1986 was the ATF’s rampant abuse of gun stores; agents were conducting repeat inspections in an attempt to shutter dealers. If the FOPA protections are removed as they would be under a bill like S. 4841, the ATF would be able to vigorously target gun dealers, reducing the ability of individuals to buy firearms. Other foreseeable legislation would include increased physical security requirements for FFLs such as anti-vehicle bollards. Sold as anti-crime bills, the real purpose of this legislation would be to make it financially or contractually infeasible (thanks to physical alteration limits in commercial leases) for gun dealers to remain in business.

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If the Biden Administration is unable to obtain a tie or majority in the Senate, it will be unable to pass its proposed anti-gun legislation. As we learned with the Obama Administration, some Presidents are willing to abuse their authority to issue executive orders and actions to circumvent the Legislature; President Trump did the same with bump stocks in 2018. By abusing the discretion (unjustly) afforded by the courts, the Executive branch may “reinterpret” laws that are already on the books in order to regulate or prevent access to firearms. For example, the Biden Administration may attempt to issue an executive order restricting access to products based on their point of origin, something which President Obama did in 2014, which effected a ban on the importation of common Soviet-style firearms. 

In short, S. 4841 proposes a drastic expansion of the ATF’s power, removing restrictions intended to prevent the agency and outsiders from abusing the rights of gun owners and firearms dealers. Though unlikely to pass, S. 4841 is indicative of two problems: systemic abuse of agency and executive powers, and the desire to pass anti-gun measures at any cost, regardless of constitutionality and separation of powers. Politicians proposing the measures contained in S. 4841 want gun owners to be tracked and exposed, they want their activities monitored, and they are willing to deny due process and other constitutional protections to people like small business owners in order to accomplish their politically-motivated goal of gun control. Although things look bleak at the moment, FPC is looking forward to the fight. 

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