The ATF Should't be Political

As the ATF turns 50 in its current form, President Biden is trying to make the agency into an anti-Second Amendment wrecking ball.

posted on June 25, 2022
ATF Agent
Photo: LM Otero/AP

As the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) celebrates its golden anniversary this month, it’s a shame that we can’t send them well wishes. Unfortunately, on this occasion of the federal agency’s 50 years since it was officially established as an independent bureau within the Treasury Department in July 1972, the anti-gun Biden administration has been trying to weaponize the agency against America’s lawful gun dealers and manufacturers—and law-abiding gun owners—like never before. 

And, as you’ll see here, it’s likely to get worse before it gets better.

Presidential Politics
The current situation at the ATF comes largely from President Joe Biden’s (D) recurring assertion that violent crimes across America are the direct result of “rogue” gun dealers putting guns into the hands of violent criminals, allegedly through illegal sales at their retail outlets. Biden has moved to “crack down” on these alleged rogue dealers.

On June 23, 2021, the Biden administration announced a new policy of “zero tolerance for rogue gun dealers that willfully violate the law.” The policy further specified that “absent extraordinary circumstances that would need to be justified to the director, ATF will seek to revoke the licenses of dealers the first time that they violate federal law” for certain specified violations.

Then, last December, the ATF updated its “Federal Firearms Licensee Quick Reference and Best Practices Guide.” The updated guide makes clear that that the “ATF will, absent extraordinary circumstances, initiate proceedings to revoke the license of any dealer that has committed a willful regulatory violation of the Gun Control Act (GCA) for specified violations.”

The real intent is even more nefarious than one might imagine.

“The new ‘zero tolerance’ policy has a clear aim of reducing the number of federally licensed dealers, which will, in turn, make it more difficult for law-abiding Americans to exercise their Second Amendment rights,” NRA’s Institute for Legislative Action stated in a March news item.

Mark Oliva, director of public affairs for the National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF), the firearm industry’s trade association, agrees with that assessment.

“We think that the administration is trying to do everything they can to choke off and slow down the rate of firearm sales in America today,” Oliva said in an exclusive interview with America’s 1st Freedom. “They see that people are exercising their Second Amendment rights in record numbers, and they’re trying to bend that curve by frightening people and putting gun stores out of business. They want to push a gun-control agenda so they can answer to their political donors, to their donor class—those people being from Everytown for Gun Safety, Brady United, Giffords and other gun-control groups.”

To do that, Biden has attempted to use the ATF to crack down on firearm dealers to an unfair level, as a simple paperwork error could now result in the revoking of a Federal Firearms License (FFL)—in other words, a business could be destroyed because someone’s handwriting wasn’t clear enough or because someone transposed a number. The ATF has long had the power to investigate FFLs, but like any federal agency, it should be reasonable as it enforces the law. President Biden is telling the ATF to be unreasonable. This won’t result in the ATF busting more criminals, but it will make the agency’s relationships with gun dealers and gun owners more adversarial. That is counterproductive, as gun dealers often work closely with ATF agents to help them nab suspected straw-purchasers and other bad actors. By unfairly cracking down on businesses, the Biden administration risks severing these important working relationships.

“They said that they would use the ATF as a bludgeon against the industry, and that’s in fact what they are trying to do,” Oliva said. “They are turning the agency that is charged with regulating the firearm industry—the manufacturers, the distributors, the retailers—and using the levers of that regulatory agency as a means to shut down and deny people their Second Amendment rights.

“We’re seeing reports coming in from the field that inspections that were previously closed are being reopened and people are receiving revocation notices on their licenses on reports that were closed previously. So, certainly we think this administration is turning the ATF into a means to exercise a politically driven agenda, when the ATF should be apolitical in everything it does.”

Oliva affirmed that agents, under direction of the White House and the U.S. Department of Justice, are revoking dealers’ federal firearms licenses after finding simple clerical errors that, in the past, would have just required a correction.

“This has become something of a serious matter of concern for the industry, for the retailers,” he said. “These are issues that could have been cleared up with a simple ‘finding’ or a warning letter, but now these are being turned into reasons to put people out of business.”

Steve Dettelbach, Attorney General Merrick Garland
As this was going to print, President Joe Biden’s (D) nominee to head the ATF is Steve Dettelbach (left), another gun-control proponent who could lead an agency tasked with policing gun stores and manufacturers. Attorney General Merrick Garland (right), as head of the U.S. Department of Justice, oversees the ATF.

Dealers in the Crosshairs

What many people don’t realize—especially those who believe the president’s assertion that gun dealers are the problem—is that the firearms industry and ATF have a long record of working together toward a mutual goal.

Jeanelle Westrom, who owns Davenport Guns in Davenport, Iowa, has a very good relationship with the agency and regularly works with both investigators and inspectors.

“If I have any problems or questions, I’ve always just picked up my cell phone and texted my local investigator,” Westrom said. “Or if there’s an issue with somebody we see that we want to give them a heads up about, it’s nothing for us to do that. Most ATF agents are just people who are trying to support their family. The more you treat them like you treat anybody else that walks into your door, they’re going to help you. They don’t want to be treated like they’re the enemy. They don’t want to be the enemy.”

Consequently, Westrom has mixed feelings about the president’s recent efforts. She doesn’t appreciate being portrayed as the enemy, but she’s not certain Biden’s attempts to weaponize the agency will trickle all the way down to the street level.

“This administration is turning the ATF into a means to exercise a politically driven agenda, when the ATF should be apolitical.”   Mark Oliva, NSSF

“I think he’s going to try to weaponize it, but I think there are a lot of ATF agents that are going to do their job the way they are supposed to do their job,” Westrom said. “[Biden] hasn’t met me, and he hasn’t seen everything I do in the community to make people understand it’s not the guns, it’s the criminals.”

Brandon Wexler, owner of Wex Gunworks in Delray Beach, Fla., is also taking the president’s weaponization of ATF in stride. He believes that Biden’s plan will likely backfire simply because of how unjust the “zero-tolerance” policy is if, as NSSF reports, the agency is revoking licenses for small clerical errors.

“I believe that our president is reaching for anything because of his failed attempts to get legislation passed,” Wexler said. “It doesn’t bother me because all you have to do is do the right thing,” he said. “We should be held to the highest standards. If you have a clerical error where someone didn’t put their middle name or didn’t write the city the proper way, is that really a reason to take someone’s license away? That sounds like a big lawsuit to me. It’s crazy.

“If they came in here and said I’m going to lose my license because someone didn’t put their middle name, we’d fight it. You can’t go after peoples’ livelihoods like that because of a clerical error.”

Other A T F Problems
This crackdown on so-called “rogue” gun dealers is only part of the story, however. Biden and the Justice Department have pushed the ATF to focus on some of Biden’s other pet projects, resulting in the agency actually making laws instead of enforcing them.

Last March, 20 U.S. Senators warned about what they called enforcement of “secret guidance” concerning forced-reset triggers. A March 11 letter addressed to Attorney General Merrick Garland and then-ATF Acting Director Marvin Richardson described what the senators deemed to be abuse of the ATF’s powers and accused the agency of intentionally concealing internal “guidance” documents from American gun owners and the firearms industry.

“Our government, including the ATF, has a duty to inform Americans what they must do to comply with federal law, especially when the conduct involves the exercise of an enumerated constitutional right and violations could result in a penalty of up to 10 years in prison,” the letter states. “With this attempted secret regulation, the ATF shows an abject disregard for the fundamental principles of due process and accountable governance.

“Federal agencies cannot enforce the law in this manner.”

Just two weeks later, the ATF decided to make that secret change of the rules public, declaring that some forced-reset triggers (FRTs) are now considered to be machineguns under federal law. Congress passed no law, but the ATF seems to have enacted its own.

According to NRA-ILA, because the case deals with the ATF’s interpretation of the term “machinegun,” the result will likely rest on whether or not the U.S. Supreme Court reevaluates the deferential standard that federal courts apply when agencies interpret statutes they are charged with enforcing.

“This deferential standard, often referred to as ‘Chevron deference’ because of a case of the same name, is wholly incompatible when applied to criminal statutes because it allows the government to turn once-lawful conduct into a felony overnight,” ILA stated in a news report.

Further changes by ATF in response to Biden’s political whims have even led to widespread fear of a national gun registry. A recent ATF “rule” concerning what Biden calls “ghost guns” would require gun kits and gun parts to be regulated as if they were fully functional firearms—meaning they wouldn’t be able to be sold without a serial number or without the buyer having to undergo a background check.

The new rule would also require gun dealers to keep records of sales forever. Under current law, firearm transaction records can be destroyed after 20 years. Also, under current law, a gun store that is going out of business must send all of its gun sales records to the ATF.

This rule change would mean that, because records must be kept indefinitely, more records would likely be sent to the ATF when a dealer decides to no longer be a dealer. These additional records could then be used by the federal government if it chooses to build a registry of gun owners.

ATF Badges, Waco Compound
The ATF has a storied past, as illustrated in the badges above, but it has also made many mistakes. On the right is an image from 1993 outside the Branch Davidian Compound near Waco, Texas. Mistakes made here by the ATF resulted in a national scandal after many were killed as the compound burned down.

A T F Leadership Follies

The ATF has been without a permanent leader for years. In his attempt to fill the director’s position, Biden has repeatedly used the nomination process in an underhanded attempt to further weaponize the agency against America’s law-abiding gun owners.

His first choice, David Chipman, was actually an employee of a prominent gun-ban group at the time of his nomination. In that position, Chipman had voiced support for nearly every gun-ban scheme imaginable. That fact, along with the nominee’s tendency to stretch the truth, or even to outright make things up, prompted 69 members of the U.S. House of Representatives to write a letter to the U.S. Senate asking them to block the nomination of Chipman, whom they called an “enemy of the Second Amendment.”

“If confirmed, David Chipman would use every tool at his disposal to attack American gun owners,” that letter read. “We respectfully ask you to oppose any and all action that would advance his confirmation in the Senate.”

At the same time, 17 state attorneys general, all of whom support more gun-control laws, pushed senators to approve Chipman’s nomination, saying he knows the agency “inside and out.” “In short, David Chipman is uniquely qualified to lead ATF,” their letter concluded.

In the end, pro-freedom advocates, led in a Herculean effort by the NRA, pushed back so hard against Chipman that Biden finally withdrew the nomination. But in April, President Biden nominated former U.S. Attorney Steve Dettelbach to head the agency. Not surprisingly, Dettelbach is also an anti-gun advocate cut from much the same cloth as Chipman.

“Like Chipman, Dettelbach is a dedicated gun controller with a background that proves he would be neither fair nor objective as head of the ATF,” NRA-ILA said in an action alert. “When running for Ohio attorney general in 2018, Dettelbach endorsed gun bans, restrictions on lawful firearm transfers and further expansion of prohibitions on who can lawfully possess a firearm. In short, it’s unclear what gun-control measures Dettelbach doesn’t support.”

Dettelbach’s anti-freedom statements and anti-gun promises made during that campaign prompted the NRA to staunchly oppose him for Ohio attorney general.

“This led NRA-PVF to award Dettelbach an ‘F’ for his positions on the right to keep and bear arms,” ILA stated. “Notably, Michael Bloomberg’s astroturf gun-control group Everytown for Gun Safety [David Chipman’s former employer] endorsed Dettelbach in his bid to become Ohio’s attorney general.”

Now, during a critical midterm election year, the NRA is having to once again rally the troops to fight an ATF nominee.

Looking to the Future
Even more startling is the fact that President Biden wants to spend nearly two billion more dollars to further weaponize the ATF next year. In his proposed budget, Biden wants to increase the ATF’s budget by $1.7 billion, a jump of about 13%. Biden specified that the funding would be used to hire an extra 160 inspectors and 140 special agents.

“That tells you exactly where his priority is,” said NSSF’s Oliva. “His priority is more to punish the industry and find reasons to shut people down than it is to send special agents out into the field to arrest criminals and bring them to justice. We’re all for putting more special agents in the field and for enforcing the laws, but the firearms industry is not the enemy. Gun dealers, for example, help the ATF’s agents all the time.”

So, what can stop Biden’s weaponization of the ATF? At this point, pro-gun advocates winning this fall’s midterm elections would likely go a long way toward restoring normalcy to the agency.

“We think that the administration’s overtures are making the relationship between the agency and the industry very difficult and are putting the ATF leadership and the ATF special agents out in the field in a very difficult position,” Oliva said. “They’re being asked to enforce orders that are driving a political agenda instead of enforcing the law.

“Congress is starting to ask some very pointed questions. If this agenda continues by this administration and the election goes the way people are predicting, there’s going to be some very hard questions for the U.S. Department of Justice, which oversees the ATF, come next year.”

So, as the ATF reaches 50 in its current form, there are unfortunately a lot of anti-gun politics to deal with. Having instigated the Operation Fast and Furious gun-running scandal under former President Barack Obama (D), as well as previously making horrifically bad decisions at Ruby Ridge (1992) and Waco (1993), the ATF has long had a controversial and problematic track record. This is unfortunate. It is also unfortunate that the current administration wishes to use this agency to go after law-abiding businesses to make it more difficult for law-abiding Americans to buy guns. Agency leadership should instead be working—as so many ATF agents have—with gun dealers and gun owners as partners to catch and stop the real criminals in our society.


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