Hard Questions, But Few Clear Answers as Congress Probes ATF Tactics and Overreach

Gun Rights

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) suffered two bruising days on Capitol Hill last week during oversight hearings attempting to get to the bottom of a fatal raid and other recent enforcement overreaches involving peaceable Americans. Many hard questions were asked but few clear answers emerged, as ATF and its apologists insisted the agency remained committed to public safety, while invoking pending investigations and lawsuits as a means of avoiding detailed responses. At the very least, the hearings made it unmistakably clear that ATF has a lot to answer for to regain the trust of pro-gun lawmakers and the gun-owning American public.

On Wednesday, the House Select Subcommittee on the Weaponization of the Federal Government held a hearing on a March 19 raid on the home of Bryan Malinowski in Little Rock, AR, that resulted in one ATF agent being shot and Malinowski himself being killed. The SWAT-style operation to execute a search warrant featured 10 carloads of ATF agents and local officers who descended on Malinowski’s residence an hour before dawn, killed power to the home, covered up a security camera on Malinowski’s front porch, and broke in through the locked front door. Contrary to the established policies of the ATF and Little Rock Police Department, none of those conducting the raid was wearing a body camera to record what happened next.

The star witness at the hearing was Bud Cummins, a former U.S. attorney and the lawyer now representing Malinowski’s family and widow, Maer Malinowski. Cummins recounted how the racket of agents “caving in the door” awakened the frightened couple, leading Bryan to arm himself with a handgun and investigate. Maer followed her husband as he confronted a group of shadowy figures entering the darkened home. Cummins said Malinowski fired at their legs to drive them back out of the house, believing them to be home invaders. An agent was struck in the foot, and the entry team returned fire, shooting Malinowski in the forehead as his bewildered wife looked on in horror.

Cummins testified that only 57 seconds elapsed between the time an agent was seen on video covering up the security camera to when Malinowski was fatally shot. This meant, he said, the operation was a no-knock entry in fact, if not on paper, as Malinowski did not have time to appreciate what was happening before he reacted. Cummins noted that Malinowki’s frantic wife, not accused of any crime, was locked in the back of a police vehicle for four hours in the 34 degree morning air, wearing only a thin nightgown. She was not allowed to check on her husband or even to use the bathroom. When she finally persuaded agents to let her use the bathroom, she was taken to local firehouse, paraded before the firemen in her nightgown, and forced to relieve herself in the presence of a female officer.

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The raid to execute the search warrant came after a months-long investigation in which ATF agents came to believe Malinowski was dealing in firearms without a license. Significantly, it occurred exactly one month before ATF published its controversial rule, “Definition of ‘Engaged in the Business’ as a Dealer in Firearms.” That rule was supposedly prompted by the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act of 2022, which changed the statutory definition of a “dealer” in firearms to focus on the intent to earn a profit, rather than to earn a livelihood. Proponents of the change said it merely codified case law, making clear that a person could be considered a “dealer in firearms,” even if the person had another full-time job or career.

Yet ATF treated the change as an opportunity for a sweeping expansion of the dealer licensing requirement, with a serious of presumptions about what sort of behaviors triggered the requirement or its requisite intent. ATF in particular focused on advertising sales via the Internet and selling at gun shows, circumstances that would have explicitly required a license in the failed Manchin-Toomey legislation the Obama/Biden administration pursued in 2013. Ironically, mere days before the hearing, a federal district judge in Texas temporarily enjoined enforcement of the ATF’s rule against a broad class of plaintiffs after finding the terms of the rule likely violated ATF’s authority.

An affidavit in support of the search warrant application for Malinowski’s home detailed many of the government’s accusations against him. These included that he bought some 147 guns over a three-year period, that he resold an unknown number of them, and that nine subsequently wound up at the scenes of crimes or in the possession of prohibited people (including at least three undercover informants). None of the guns, however, was said to have been used against a person in a crime of violence. It is striking how many of the circumstances mentioned in the affidavit that caused the government to scrutinize Malinowski would later end up as presumptions in the regulation a federal judge has already ruled is likely illegal.

The testimony of Bud Cummins emphasized that Malinowski had no criminal history and a lucrative, high-paying job as the director of the Bill and Hillary Clinton National Airport in Little Rock that he would not have knowingly jeopardized with illegal activity. Cummins described Malinowski as an avid collector and hobbyist, of coins as well as firearms. He said Malinowski sold both of these things at gun shows, as the text of federal statute says he had a right to do to enhance his personal collection. Cummins said the government could have resolved the matter without the escalations that led to the eventual exchange of gunfire, including by simply serving Malinowski with a cease and desist letter. Even in the context of a criminal investigation, Cummins testified, the ATF’s tactics were unnecessarily aggressive, ignored less risky alternatives, and lacked indicia of transparency.

The day after the subcommittee’s hearing, ATF Director Steven Dettelbach appeared before the full House Judiciary Committee for an oversight hearing. Malinwoski’s widow attended both hearings. Pro-gun members grilled the director on the Malinowski case, which he claimed was only one of thousands of ATF operations he was only vaguely aware of before the fact. Dettelbach deflected any attempt to elicit explanations for the ATF’s conduct by insisting the matter was under “independent” investigation by the Arkansas State Police and therefore Justice Department policy prohibited him from discussing it. In general terms, he emphasized the dangerousness of ATF’s work and the necessity of deferring to the operational decisions of “professionals” in the field. He also blamed ATF’s lack of compliance with policies requiring body cameras, as a general matter, on budgetary constraints.

Dettelbach additionally refused to comment upon or explain the details of various controversial ATF rules, on the bases that the rules spoke for themselves, and ATF’s defense of them was well-documented in the many legal cases challenging them in various courts. He claimed his attempts to summarize, elaborate, or defend any of the rules could adversely affect those proceedings.

Pro-gun members of the committee treated these excuses as a cop-out and vainly tried to elicit more specifics from Dettelbach. Anti-gun committee members tried to portray the pro-gun members as hypocrites for wanting to cut ATF funding, while claiming support for law enforcement, and emphasized the supposed importance of ATF’s collaboration with state and local police in the enforcement of gun control laws. Some tried to paint the Malinowski case as a typical and justified law enforcement investigation, while others admitted concern about its tactics but criticized pro-gun committee members for ignoring similar cases involving minority defendants.

When the smoke cleared, Americans had few answers about the concerns expressed in the hearings, and no clear sense of how much knowledge or involvement Dettelbach himself has in the workings of the agency he directs. Overall, however, he appeared more as the agency’s cheerleader than its operational leader.

Yet enough was said to put Americans who believe in the right to keep and bear arms on notice that the Biden administration is using ATF to pursue its anti-gun political agenda, and not just to impartially enforce the law against violent criminals or those who intentionally flout the law. Hearings are useful to illustrate the problems, but the only solutions are to be found at the ballot box.

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