Burn down ATF? Not so fast

By Jeff Knox

President Trump has made quite a stir with his Cabinet picks and his Supreme Court nominee, and he is obviously working hard to shift the leadership paradigm in Washington. Next will be the appointment of agency heads to begin the top-down reorganization that so many federal agencies so desperately need. As this process is just getting underway, many in the gun community are clamoring for the new president to shut down the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives, or BATFE. That’s nothing new. In fact, there has been such talk for over 40 years. President Reagan came close to doing it during his first term, and George W. Bush considered it in 2002. They didn’t go that route, and Trump shouldn’t, either.

The running joke among gun owners is that the BATFE’s name would be more appropriate for a great convenience store than a government agency. There’s no question that the agency has a long history of outrageous abuse, and it has fully earned its position as the favorite whipping boy of gun groups. But breaking it up, or reassigning its firearm duties to another agency, is tantamount to painting a new name on the bow of the Titanic. While there are certainly problems with the agency, the same problems would undoubtedly crop up regardless of whose initials are on the door.

During Senate testimony in 1979, my father, Neal Knox, then executive director of NRA’s Institute for Legislative Action, argued that disbanding the BATF would simply move the problems to some other agency. If the job of enforcing federal gun laws were to be given to the FBI, as was being suggested at the time, the first thing that agency would do is hire recently unemployed BATF agents to staff its new firearms enforcement division, and it would be enforcing the same poorly written laws that have created all of the current problems. The only real difference would be that now it would be doing so under the auspices of a well-respected agency, rather than one that is widely recognized as corrupt and incompetent. That would only make it harder to keep it in check.

The alternative to disbanding BATFE, is to retain it with its current mission, but try to change the culture of the agency, while simultaneously chipping away at the worst aspects of federal gun control laws. The first step in accomplishing that is appointment of a permanent director whose main objective is to bring rationality and reason to the agency’s enforcement policies, rather than just building a bigger, more powerful bureaucracy. A recent “internal memo” from the BATFE’s second in command, Ronald Turk, is being skeptically viewed as an application for that job.

In the memo, which was leaked to the Washington Post, Turk suggested that, in the interest of improved efficiency and better resource management, BATFE should consider supporting commonsense changes to current senseless gun laws and policies. Among his suggested topics of discussion were reducing regulations on gun mufflers, lifting bans on importation of guns that are exactly the same as guns commonly made and sold here, permanently exempting certain common rifle ammunition from the ban on “armor piercing” handgun bullets, and halting efforts to force gun dealers to keep sales records in perpetuity.

These are all things for which gun groups like the Firearms Coalition have been calling for years, but to have them advanced by a top executive of BATFE is pretty unprecedented. For decades, the BATFE has been managed by bureaucrats who have been much more sympathetic with gun-control supporters than gun owners. After all, the more gun control laws there are to enforce, the bigger and more powerful the BATFE must become, so it makes sense for it to lean in that direction.

Mr. Turk’s memo has gun-control zealots in a tizzy. It doesn’t matter to them that all of these suggestions would free up thousands of hours and millions of dollars that are currently being wasted on laws and regulations that have no impact on crime. All that matters to them is that, at some point, some hoplophobic politician was able to implement some restrictions on these things, and any discussion of rolling back some of them is nothing short of heresy.

To them, this is not about what works or doesn’t work, or what is reasonable or unreasonable. It is about adhering to the strict catechism of their religious order: All guns and gun-related items are bad. All restrictions on guns and gun-related items are good, and should never be diminished in any way for any reason.

There is nothing wrong with BATFE that wouldn’t also be wrong with any other agency enforcing the current, convoluted gun laws and regulations. Until those laws are fixed, good leadership and a shift in focus could go a long way toward reducing the negative impact of those bad laws.

Is Ronald Turk the right man for that job? We’ll need much more than just one leaked memo to make that call, but it is certainly refreshing to hear commonsense suggestions from so high up in the bureaucratic food chain.

Donald Trump has promised to support our rights, as have a majority in both houses of Congress. Some good legislation has already been introduced, executive orders are being reviewed and agency heads are being replaced. Rights and rationality weren’t swept away in one fell swoop, and they won’t be restored that way, either. This will continue to be a long fight, and rights supporters need to stay focused on turning the ship, rather than arguing about the initials painted on its bow.

Media wishing to interview Jeff Knox, please contact [email protected].

Leave a Comment