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Update on Operation Choke Point: Evidence Mounts of Government Policy

Friday, May 23, 2014

Earlier this month, we reported on concerns being raised by the activities of federal banking regulators under the umbrella of Operation Choke Point.  Many have claimed the regulators are using their ratings and enforcement authorities to intimidate banks into refusing or severing business relationships with lawful, though politically-disfavored, industries, including those involved with firearms and ammunition. As we noted in our report, we are aware of situations in which banks have refused or severed relationships with customers in the firearm industry, but the reasons underlying these decisions were often disputed (with the banks claiming one thing and the customer another).  At the time of that report, we were unaware of a “smoking gun” to tie these decisions back to pressure from regulatory authorities.

That may be changing.  The Washington Times has been running a series on the controversy, and a recent piece explained that the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. (FDIC), an independent federal entity that ensures bank deposits, has for the last several years been urging banks to take a more active role in policing the activities of the banks’ customers.  As part of this effort, the FDIC published a list of merchants engaged in so-called “high risk” activities that it claimed should be of concern to banks.  That list is still available on the FDIC’s website.  Moreover, NRA has received a copy of a PowerPoint presentation from an Examiner Education workshop conducted by officials from the FDIC, Department of Justice, and Office of Comptroller of the Treasury that also lists “Ammunition Sales” and “Firearms/Fireworks Sales” as “High Risk Merchants/Activities.”  One of the presenters verified the authenticity of that document.

A number of questions remain, however.  First is why firearm and ammunition sales, already among the nation’s most heavily-regulated and scrutinized consumer activity, would be considered a financial risk to banks or consumers, especially considering the robust economic activity in that sector over the last several years.  Evidence of pervasive consumer fraud or bank failures attributable to firearm-related businesses is non-existent.  

The Times story and the FDIC website, however, provide a clue with mentions of “reputational risk” to banks.  As one banking website put it, “some of the merchant categories listed as ‘high risk’ are obvious choices.  ‘Debt consolidation scams’ and ‘Ponzi schemes,’ for instance, should be unbankable, while others seem to be there simply because they're icky ….”  In other words, regulators may be pressuring banks to consider not just the financial soundness of their business relationships but whether the nature of certain legal businesses could be considered (by the regulators or other persons of influence) personally or politically objectionable.

Examples continue to mount, of businesses that have either lost existing banking relationships or been refused new ones based not on their creditworthiness or business performance but on vague references to the “industry” in which they operate.  In some cases, the bank has even explicitly noted that the individual business was not to blame.  Needless to say, nothing could be more un-American than lawfully- operated private businesses being forced out of the market without reference to any individual wrongdoing or mismanagement, merely on the whim of government regulators who find them distasteful. 

Fortunately, a number of Congressional representatives -- notably Rep. Blaine Luetkemyer (R-MO), who on Wednesday appeared on the Cam & Co. radio show to provide an update -- continue to investigate these allegations of regulatory abuse and are keeping all their options on the table. 

The NRA is also keeping all options on the table as details emerge, and will continue to pursue this story and work with members of Congress and affected parties to obtain answers and seek solutions.  The efforts of the Obama Administration to impose its vision of a "fundamentally transformed" America have already fallen hard on those who value the Second Amendment, and some fear this could be yet another example of his "phone and pen" style of imperial governance.

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Established in 1975, the Institute for Legislative Action (ILA) is the "lobbying" arm of the National Rifle Association of America. ILA is responsible for preserving the right of all law-abiding individuals in the legislative, political, and legal arenas, to purchase, possess and use firearms for legitimate purposes as guaranteed by the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.