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There are some in the rights community who have picked up a mantra of “enforce the laws already on the books.” That would be fine if the laws on the books made sense, but unfortunately many of those laws are simply stupid, and enforcement of these laws has proven too often be arbitrary, capricious and even vindictive.
The latest stupidity being exposed is the fact that under federal law, as interpreted by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), millions of law-abiding shotgun owners are committing a serious felony by simply possessing their guns.
So far ATF has wisely refrained from pursuing prosecutions of these millions of illegal gun possessors, but just pretending that a law doesn’t exist is not a reasonable solution to the problem – especially when ATF has a history of pulling such forgotten laws out of the closet when they need something to pin on someone they’ve targeted.
For instance, the tragedy at Ruby Ridge stemmed from an ATF charge that Randy Weaver cut two shotgun barrels a half inch shorter than the 18 inches the law allows. When Weaver refused to act as an informant against a racist group, ATF vigorously prosecuted him on the shotguns – even though in certain configurations the agency has declared that shotguns with barrels 17 inches or less were completely legal and not subject to any special controls.
The disastrous raid on the Branch Davidian church group outside Waco, Texas, also instigated by ATF, started with a botched attempt to serve a search warrant specifying illegal machineguns – or parts with which to convert guns into machineguns. After the raid was over, ATF produced the charred and warped remains of a number of guns that they claimed were indeed machineguns, but when one of the companies hired to investigate the causes of the Challenger space shuttle disaster asked to X-ray these guns, ATF refused. The guns have never been subjected to any outside inspection.
While ATF receives a lot of well-deserved criticism, the root of the problem is much deeper than ATF. It is the laws themselves.
Federal gun laws fall into two broad categories: the 1968 Gun Control Act and the 1934 National Firearms Act. GCA deals with “regular” guns that any non-criminal can buy at the local gun shop. NFA covers “special” guns and weapons such as machineguns, sawed-off shotguns, silencers and other, less politically correct guns.
If you’re old enough you might remember Steve McQueen’s TV show from the late ’50s, “Wanted Dead or Alive.” In that show McQueen’s character carried a chopped down Winchester Model 92 lever-action rifle. That gun almost landed the show’s producer in jail and cost the studio over $1,100 in special taxes because cutting a rifle’s barrel down to less than 16 inches or reducing the gun’s overall length to less than 26 inches turns that gun into a “Short Barreled Rifle,” or SBR, subject to the taxes and rules of NFA.
If you or I were to take a Model 92 today and cut it down to 19 inches like McQueen’s gun, we would be subject to up to 10 years in jail and a $10,000 fine. If you really wanted a gun like that, however, you can buy one for about $600 with no special restrictions. It is a very close replica to McQueen’s gun, it measures to 19 inches and is fully functional. If you put the original and the replica through side-by-side comparisons and testing you would be hard pressed to find any differences at all besides some government-required import markings and a different manufacturer’s name.
The difference is that the replica was manufactured short, not cut down from a longer gun. Officially it is a pistol, and so it does not fall under the rules of the NFA. If you were to replace the stock on the replica with a full-length shoulder stock though, you would have a problem, because that would move the gun’s official classification into what the NFA calls “Any Other Weapon,” making it subject to NFA taxes and regulations. Adding a longer stock to McQueen’s SBR and extending the barrel a few inches would qualify it as a rifle again, though, and you could de-list it from NFA and sell it like any other regular gun.
That all makes sense, right?
How’s this for a fair and reasonable standard? Today’s most popular rifle is the AR platform, the civilian version of the M16. Many returning soldiers want a gun like they carried in combat, and some are willing to pay the extra $200 taxes and jump through the extra hoops to have one with a barrel less than 16 inches long. But the ATF has decreed that since the barrels of AR-pattern rifles are easily interchangeable, if a collector with a legal SBR possesses any other receiver on which that barrel can be installed, he is in possession of multiple SBRs and is in violation of the law if he doesn’t pay the extra taxes and register each one – even if he never mounts the short barrel on any other receiver.
Enforcing the laws already on the books is a bad idea when the laws are this stupid.
The purpose of many of these laws died with Bonnie and Clyde. Today they simply serve as traps for unsuspecting shooters and gun collectors. ATF is pretty universally despised in the firearms industry because they are abusive in their enforcement of these bad laws, but the problems of ATF enforcement can never be adequately addressed as long as the bad laws remain on the books – and I’ve just barely scratched the surface here. Federal gun laws have not had major reform since 1986, and many of the problem laws have been festering on the books since 1968 or 1934.
It’s time for a change. It’s time for Congress to step up and reform both the Gun Control Act and the National Firearms Act. Bad laws don’t get better by themselves. Congress created this mess, Congress needs to get down to business and fix it.