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Shooting blanks

By Lady Liberty
web posted October 2, 2006

In recent weeks, I've been urged to get behind a couple of bills in the House of Representatives. These bills, which are supported by the National Rifle Association , would be good for gun owners, I'm told.

According to the NRA's Institute for Legislative Action :

H.R. 5092 — the “Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (BATFE) Modernization and Reform Act of 2006,” by Reps. Howard Coble (R-N.C.) and Bobby Scott (D-Va.) — will curb the agency’s efforts to revoke dealers’ licenses for minor paperwork errors, improve the appeals process for dealers, and establish new guidelines for BATFE investigations. This bill was drafted in large part to address recent, blatant BATFE abuses at Richmond, Virginia gun shows highlighted in hearings before the U.S. House Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism and Homeland Security.

This sounds pretty good, doesn't it? Well, Jews for the Preservation of Firearms Ownership points out that that's just about all it does. In an article entitled "With Friends Like These...We're in Trouble ," the JPFO notes that there are several salient and much needed reforms missing in H.R. 5092. Those measures, including a crucial (in my opinion) requirement that BATFE gun tests be videotaped, are contained instead in H.R. 1603, a bill which is going nowhere. The JPFO calls H.R. 5092 "window dressing."

While the JPFO doesn't take a position one way or the other on legislation (it's a non-political organization), it does urge that people stop to think (not to mention to learn more about a particular bill) before they promote (or castigate) one bill or another. In cases like this, it's especially important to know what you are or are not supporting since a "feel good" bill might prove to be utterly useless, or worse (and more likely), will represent an actual step back.

At the same time House members are likely to vote on H.R. 5092, they'll also be taking a look at H.R. 5005. Again from the NRA's Institute for Legislative Action, we learn that:

H.R. 5005 — the “Firearms Corrections and Improvements Act,” by Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Tex.) — will protect gun owners’ privacy by creating a permanent version of the “Tiahrt Amendment,” preventing disclosure of gun owner records outside of legitimate criminal investigations. The bill also includes a ban on BATFE retrieving out-of-business dealers’ records by the gun owner’s name — making permanent an appropriations restriction that’s been in effect for the last 10 years. Among other reforms, H.R. 5005 will also permanently ban federal fees on instant background checks and roll back various restrictions on firearms industry activities.

And H.R. 5005 has other supporters. John Snyder, who has an impressive résumé working for and with gun advocacy groups, supports the measure . He says that the passage of H.R. 5005 would ensure that people like New York City's Mayor Michael Bloomberg couldn't get BATFE records for use in his ongoing campaign of harassment of gun dealers. I suspect that such a law, if passed, would stop Mayor Bloomberg for about 30 seconds. Does anybody else want to bet he'd find a way to make his crusade a matter of criminal rather than civil action in short order?

The only thing that H.R. 5005 could probably be relied upon to accomplish would be the prevention of the publication of CCW applicants in the media. Now while I agree that would be a good thing, even that might be undermined if someone alleged to be a CCW holder were accused of some criminal act or another. I suspect that the hypothetical criminal act wouldn't even need to be related to firearms or to firearms ownership in any way for a reporter to use the information in an inflammatory way.

As usual, the "Brady Bunch" (more respectfully known as — my own complete lack of any respect whatsoever for them is why I never call them otherwise, by the way — The Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence ) has come up with a report it claims proves the NRA and everybody else is lying about the use of gun records, the harassment of law abiding gun dealers, the harassment of law abiding gun owners, and, as always, the inherent dangers of firearms.

But whatever good H.R. 5092 and H.R. 5005 might conceivably do — and I suppose each might do a little good — the real question might be to ask ourselves if these laws even matter. Why would I say such a thing? That's simple enough. To matter, they'd have to be obeyed by the law enforcement officials they're primarily aimed at.

Some years ago, legislation colloquially known as "The Brady Bill" was passed by Congress and signed into law. Brady included, among other things, a requirement that anyone wanting to buy a gun undergo an "instant" background check. At the time, we were assured that the checks would be quick — a matter of minutes — and that the fact we'd undergone such a check would be deleted after its satisfactory completion. Unfortunately, neither happened, though the former eventually did meet expectations in most cases.

The text of the Brady Bill itself clearly states that records are to be destroyed after the satisfactory completion of a background check:

...If receipt of a firearm would not violate subsection (g) or (n) or State law, the system shall —

(A) assign a unique identification number to the transfer;

(B) provide the licensee with the number; and

(C) destroy all records of the system with respect to the call (other than the identifying number and the date the number was assigned) and all records of the system relating to the person or the transfer.

Take a good look at item C above again. Unfortunately, while you're taking that look, you'll note that there's no time limit clearly defined. But how many people read the text of the entire bill, and how many people believed it when they were told that destruction of records would be immediate? Apparently, not many, and most of them, at least judging from the reactions when we learned that the FBI was, as a matter of course ("to make sure the system was working") holding records for a minimum of six months. To its credit, the NRA did try to fight the records retention unsuccessfully.

Meanwhile, I'll tell you something else: That six months was also a fallacy. I happened to be in attendance at a town hall-type meeting with my Congressman (at the time), and took the opportunity to bring the subject up. Now it so happens that I'd had dealings with this particular Congressman before, and it also so happens (believe it or not) that I really like the guy. Knowing full well he was (and still is) a bona fide supporter of the Second Amendment, I looked him right in the eye and asked him whether or not the FBI was destroying those records even after its artificially supported six-month delay. He looked down for a moment, but then looked right back at me and said, "I think it's safe to say that the answer to that is 'no.'"

Later, the stated 180-day records retention was reduced to 90 days (which I suspect was also broadly ignored). When then-Attorney General John Ashcroft tried to reduce the records retention period to 24 hours, freedom lovers cheered, but the hue and cry was so loud from other corners of the debate that it never happened. Even if it did, how much would it matter when records are still maintained — as a requirement — by gun dealers themselves?

The new legislation set to reform the BATFE (if there's another agency more sorely in need of reform, she doesn't know of it, and given the state of the TSA and the Department of Education, that's really saying something!) doesn't offer much more hope than those segments of previous laws that are ignored apparently at the whim of various agencies. Consider for a moment one of the stated reasons behind H.R. 5092: Recent (relatively) BATFE investigations in Virginia.

According to reports published by The Virginia Citizens Defense League , there were:

"...reports from members of police going to their houses while the member was waiting for their approval to purchase a gun at the show! The police asked the spouse and other family members questions about the purchases and filled in a survey! 'Did you know your husband was going to a gun show today? Did you know your husband was going to buy a gun today?' and many other such questions.

If no one was home at the gun purchaser's house, the police went to the neighbors'! 'Did you know that your neighbor was buying a gun today? How do you feel about him doing so?'"

If you're like most freedom-loving Americans, you're as appalled as I am by this tale. Those who complained — and rightfully so! — were assured that the stories coming out of Virginia were isolated incidents, and that such would not happen again. The case was broadly reported and almost as widely condemned; as such you might think that agents would be more circumspect if nothing else in the future. Apparently, that didn't prove to be the case.

Events in Virginia occurred at a gun show in August of 2005. But just a couple of months ago, something else just as obvious — and frankly just as diabolically threatening — occurred at a gun show in Tennessee. The following was relayed directly to me from a man who was there:

A couple months ago I was at a gun show in Nashville. It had "security cameras" all over. One part of the concession area was blocked off. It was away from the rest of the concessionaires. It had a very obvious smoked/mirrored glass facing the crowd. Out in the parking lot of the building, several people were walking around with small notebooks. They seemed to be interested in the license plate and make of each car. I witnessed them writing down something whenever a person got into their vehicle.

Facing the only exit door used by patrons was a big van with smoked windows. It was kind of hard to miss. It was parked sideways in the middle of the walk zone of the pavement, so you had to go around it. It had two dish-type antennae and was plugged into the electric service. I didn't get a look inside of it. But this was the last guns how I will attend in Tennessee.

Does that sound to you like the BATFE (or the FBI or whichever other alphabet agency might have an interest in whether or not you own a gun) is respecting your Second Amendment rights (not to mention your Fourth Amendment or privacy rights)? Of course not!

And that's why I'm not so sure that H.R. 5092 or H.R. 5005 should be passed. Even assuming both were perfect — and they're not — I'm not sure they should be passed because I'm completely sure they'll be ignored.

It's a common argument — largely because it's right — that gun laws only have an effect on the law abiding gun owner (look no further than the recent Toronto school shootings to see how much of an effect even stringent gun laws have on someone inclined to break the law — or how much of an effect "mere" registration has on someone intent on killing). Those who plan to kill, rob, assault, or terrorize generally break several laws in one fell swoop. One more isn't going to matter. Criminals are called criminals because they ignore the law, remember?

At the same time, more and more federal agents and agencies are ignoring laws intended (or at least so we understand) to restrain them from infringing our liberties. You can start with the Bill of Rights which is being roundly ignored by many from the White House on down, and you can finish with H.R. 5092 and H.R. 5005 which are just as likely be ignored, even (especially?) by the very people they're intended to guide.

Maybe before any other laws are passed, we should give some real consideration to the existing laws that are being ignored on a regular basis. President Bush often says in speeches that the United States is a "nation of laws." We've got hundreds of thousands of statutes on the books, so he's right if he's talking sheer numbers. But I think what he really means is that we're a nation of people who respect the law. Except, apparently, for those in charge of making it and enforcing it. What is it that we call people who ignore the law again? ESR

Lady Liberty, a senior writer for ESR, is a graphic designer and pro-freedom activist currently residing in the Midwest. More of her writings and other political and educational information is available on her web site, Lady Liberty's Constitution Clearing House, at http://www.ladylibrty.com. E-mail Lady Liberty at ladylibrty@ladylibrty.com.




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