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Hearings Put Spotlight On Need For BATFE Reform

Friday, March 31, 2006

At back-to-back hearings on Tuesday, March 28, the House Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism and Homeland Security, continued to focus on enforcement abuses at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (BATFE), and also aired opinions about a new bill to correct several issues in federal firearms law.

First, the subcommittee heard testimony from people with first-hand experience dealing with BATFE.  Virginia lawyer Richard Gardiner, who has represented many gun owners and dealers, focused on the way BATFE handles cases against federally licensed firearms dealers (FFLs)--often seeking to revoke FFLs for “trivial, immaterial violations” based on “undefined legal standards.”  Gardiner described one case where a dealer lost his license even though BATFE itself agreed his records were 99.96% accurate, and the few errors posed no threat to public safety. 

Next, Lt. Michael Lara of the Tucson Police Department recounted his personal horror story at the hands of BATFE.  After buying a gun as a gift for a friend, Lt. Lara found himself facing federal felony charges as a “straw purchaser.”  Lt. Lara lost his job, and didn’t get it back before a three-month legal nightmare cost him more than $200,000 in legal fees, lost pay and other costs.  BATFE never even interviewed him during its investigation, and the jury acquitted him in less than an hour.

At the second hearing, the subcommittee focused on H.R. 5005, Rep. Lamar Smith’s (R-TX) bill to make various technical changes and corrections in federal firearms law.  Anti-gun advocates have gone through the roof over one provision of H.R. 5005: a section that prohibits disclosure of firearms trace data outside of law enforcement investigations.  That language simply makes permanent a policy that Congress has enacted through annual appropriations riders for the past several years.  Yet at this hearing, anti-gun New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg (R) hysterically denounced it as a “God-awful” bill that would “facilitate the shooting deaths of thousands of innocent Americans every year.”  Of course, Bloomberg’s real goal--besides publicity in the Big Apple media--is to use this confidential law enforcement information in the city’s suit against the firearms industry.  Attorney Gardiner took the opportunity to point out that “what the Mayor is saying about this bill simply is not true,” because the trace system is designed to help solve crimes, not to do statistical research.

Subcommittee Chairman Howard Coble (R-NC) and ranking member Bobby Scott (D-VA) agreed on the need to focus BATFE’s efforts on enforcing current laws against serious criminals, while not pursuing petty violations or undermining civil liberties.  To that end, the “Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives Modernization and Reform Act of 2006” will soon be introduced.  This bipartisan bill will update the legal standards for disciplining violations by FFLs.  It also calls for a review of BATFE’s enforcement practices, and clarifies BATFE’s responsibilities to keep the Bureau focused on its core mission.

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