Rather than pass a large, all encompassing omnibus appropriations bill for the new fiscal year – which began on Oct. 1 – Congress narrowed the scope of their first funding bill to only cover certain essential services and agencies in what they dubbed a "minibus" appropriation bill.
Even so, the measure, which was finally passed in mid November and signed by the president on Nov. 18, was massive and complex. Along with funding government agencies and specific programs, the Congress included numerous limitations on how the money can be spent, including over a dozen riders pertaining to firearms issues.
Most were directly related to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, or ATF, while others were aimed at the Justice Department and other agencies, which deal with firearms law enforcement, record keeping, import and export, etc. Such instructions, known as riders, are nothing new, in fact, most of the ATF provisions have been included in appropriations bills for years, some for decades. But this year's unique "minibus" does have some new tricks.
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A permanent prohibition against the establishment of any sort of federal registration system of firearms and firearm owners, which has been included in appropriations bills since 1979, is among the more significant features of this bill. That provision was originally promulgated under the guidance of my father, Neal Knox, when he was Executive Director of NRA-ILA, the National Rifle Association's lobbying division, and has been included in appropriations bill each year since. Dad would be pleased to see this protection finally made permanent.
Other provisions that attained permanent status in this bill include a prohibition against the computerization of records from out-of-business firearms dealers into a de facto registration system; a requirement that any identifying information obtained through the National Instant Background Check System be destroyed within 24 hours of a transfer being approved; and restrictions on the release of firearms trace data.
An important new provision in this appropriation forbids the government from blocking the importation of shotguns based on a determination that they are not "suitable for sporting purposes," if those shotguns were deemed suitable for importation in 2011.
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This was in response to a new "study" from the ATF suggesting that they were moving to use the "sporting purpose" clause of the Gun Control Act to block importation of a variety of tactical-style shotguns that have been gaining popularity for home defense and action-shooting competition. Prices for these shotguns skyrocketed in the wake of this "study" from the $300-$400 range to the $1,200-$1,300 range. The fact that this importability assurance is not permanent, requiring reauthorization every year, means that these shotguns should be more readily available, but their prices are likely to remain inflated based on fears of future import bans.
All of the firearms-related riders in this minibus are not gun-friendly, however; there is a provision that has been included in these appropriations since 1992 that prohibits the expenditure of any money on processing requests for restoration of firearms rights. This provision is particularly onerous, since Congress specifically made provisions for such restoration of rights for people ATF determines are not a threat to society. The repeated inclusion of this prohibition points up the "sausage-making" process of Congress, as various politicians play give-and-take with our rights.
A particularly unusual rider forbids the transfer of duties and responsibilities from ATF to any other federal agency. The prime motivator of this restriction is fear that the administration could shift certain responsibilities from ATF to some other entity and thereby side-step restrictions that specifically name ATF. There is also concern that shifting responsibility for firearms law enforcement to an entity such as the FBI could make it more difficult to observe and influence those activities. With all of the criticism rights groups level at ATF, most recognize that the problems with ATF are primarily the fault of poorly written laws, not flaws within the agency or its personnel.
Other provisions protect definitions and importability of "curios and relics," older firearms that fall under less-restrictive laws than modern firearms. Again, though, the fact that these protections come in the form of annual funding restrictions means that they can't truly stabilize markets, prices and procedures.
In the end, the firearms riders in the minibus represent a net gain for gun owners, but the whole process highlights some of the serious flaws in current laws and regulations, as well as the messiness of our legislative process. Wading through the massive appropriations bill and its many riders also offers a glimpse at just how pervasive and expensive federal government has become. Clearly the protections and limitations included in the U.S. Constitution are of little concern to those writing our laws and spending our money.