WASHINGTON – National Rifle Association officials say proposals such as universal background checks for gun buyers won’t work and the nation must enforce the laws it has, but lobbying records and interviews show the organization has worked steadily to weaken existing gun laws and the federal agency charged with enforcing them.
“I think the majority of the American public sees through this and want the current laws enforced,” NRA Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre said on Fox News Sunday of the current effort to implement more restrictions. “They don’t want more laws imposed on what is only going to be the law-abiding.”
A review of congressional legislative records, federal lobbying disclosure forms, as well as interviews with former ATF agents, shows how the NRA has repeatedly supported legislation to weaken several of the nation’s gun laws and has opposed any attempt to boost the ability of the Bureau of the Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives to enforce current laws.
The Firearms Owners’ Protection Act of 1986. This law mandated that the ATF could inspect firearms dealers only once a year. It reduced record-keeping penalties from felonies to misdemeanors, prohibited the ATF from computerizing purchase records for firearms and required the government to prove that a gun dealer was “willful” if he sold a firearm to a prohibited person.
The Tiahrt amendments. Beginning in 2003, the amendments by then-representative Todd Tiahrt, R-Kan., to the Justice Department’s appropriation bill included requirements such as same-day destruction of FBI background check documents and limits on sharing data from traces.
Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives Reform and Firearms Modernization Act. Most recently introduced in 2011, the bill proposed changing several regulations, including redefining the burden of proof for agents investigating firearms dealers accused of selling to prohibited individuals and capping fines for other violations.
The NRA didn’t do anything to weaken the ATF, which is responsible for its inability to enforce the laws, NRA spokesman Andrew Arulanandam said.
“The thing that weakens the ATF is when they engage in deadly and criminal enterprises such as Fast and Furious,” he said.
Operation Fast and Furious was a 2010 ATF operation in Arizona. Two guns linked to the botched investigation were found at the scene where a U.S. Border Patrol agent was shot and killed. The gun used to kill the agent has not been identified.
The ATF also has opposed the public sharing of data from traces, Arulanandam said, just as the NRA does.
Several former ATF agents say the 1986 Firearms Owners’ Protection Act has hampered the agency’s ability to enforce gun laws, because it limits their resources.
“For all practical purposes, (the act) made it not impossible but very, very difficult to police both licensed and unlicensed dealers both from a regulatory point of view and a criminal prosecution point of view,” said William Vizzard, a professor of criminal justice at California State University-Sacramento and a former ATF agent.
One provision in the law Vizzard cited as particularly vexing to the ATF was that false record keeping for dealers was reduced to a misdemeanor, meaning if an ATF agent audited a gun dealer missing 1,200 guns, the dealer could not be charged with a federal offense.
Joseph Vince, a retired ATF agent, also mentioned the 1986 act, but added the agency was woefully underfunded because of NRA pressure in Congress.
“What they do, they will make it so that any gun-control measures that are passed are going to be failures,” Vince said. “They set it up that way because if there’s no resources granted, then how is it going to work? You look at ATF, they haven’t had any more special agents than they did in 1976.”
ATF records show the agency had 1,622 agents and 826 industry investigators in 1973 compared with 2,574 agents and 833 investigators in 2012.
Meanwhile, the number of firearms owned in the United States has only grown.
In 1994, 44 million people in the United States owned 192 million firearms, according to a November 2012 Congressional Research Service report. By 2009, the estimated number of guns available to Americans had risen to 310 million.
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