ATF official wants looser gun restrictions, end to ban on imported assault weapons

Washington Post

The second-highest-ranking official at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives has written a proposal to reduce gun regulations, including examining a possible end to the ban on importing assault weapons into the United States.

The 11-page "white paper" by Ronald B. Turk, associate deputy director and chief operating officer of the ATF, calls for removing restrictions on the sale of gun silencers; allowing gun dealers to have more guns used in crimes traced to their stores before the federal government requires additional information from the dealer; and initiating a study on lifting the ban on imported assault weapons.

"Restriction on imports serves questionable public safety interests, as these rifles are already generally legally available for manufacture and ownership in the United States," Turk wrote of the ban on imported AR-15s and AK-style weapons.

The white paper, obtained by The Washington Post, is titled "Options to Reduce or Modify Firearms Regulations." The proposal opens with the wording of the Second Amendment and is dated Jan. 20.

"This white paper offers a disturbing series of giveaways to the gun industry that would weaken regulatory oversight of the gun industry without adequate consideration of the impact on public safety," said Chelsea Parsons, vice president of guns and crime policy at the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank.

"ATF has long described its regulatory function as a core part of its law enforcement mission to fight gun crime, yet this paper seems to prioritize reducing perceived burdens on the gun industry over an interest in protecting public safety from the illegal diversion of firearms," Parsons said.

The white paper has the ATF seal on its cover and lists Turk's name and ATF title. But an agency spokeswoman said it doesn't represent the views of the ATF.

"It's simply his opinion, and it's to generate dialogue," said Jan Kemp, spokeswoman for the ATF.

Several of the reduced firearms regulations are supported by the National Rifle Association, which has lobbied for some of the proposals for years.

Current law strictly limits the sale of gun silencers, devices attached to or that are part of the barrel of a gun to reduce the amount of noise and visible muzzle flash. While it is legal to buy silencers in most states, a purchase requires a nine-month waiting time and a special $200 tax. The gun industry and the NRA have long complained about these restrictions under the National Firearms Act, the law that regulates machine guns, and are lobbying for legislation to make it easier to purchase them.

The NRA did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

One supporter of relaxed regulations on silencers is Donald Trump Jr., the president's oldest son, who is a hunter. Republican lawmakers have proposed legislation that, rather than focusing on the Second Amendment, frames the matter as a public health issue to protect the hearing of gun owners. The bill, which would eliminate the tax and long waiting period to buy a silencer, is called the Hearing Protection Act.

"Silencers are very rarely used in criminal shootings," the white paper states. "Given the lack of criminality associated with silencers, it is reasonable to conclude that they should not be viewed as a threat to public safety."

Gun control advocates point out that machine guns, regulated under the same law as silencers, are also rarely used in crime because of the difficulty of obtaining them.

In 1989, the George H.W. Bush administration banned the imports of semiautomatic assault rifles. Turk's white paper, which refers to them as "modern sporting rifles," notes that their use has "increased exponentially in sport shooting."

"Those firearm types are now standard for hunting activities," according to the paper. "These restrictions have placed many limitations on importers, while at the same time imposing a heavy workload" on the ATF.

Federal regulation stipulates that federally licensed gun dealers who sold 10 or more guns used in a crime in the previous three years should receive a "demand letter" from the ATF that compels them to provide the agency with more information about the guns they have sold. The Turk paper states that increasing the number of crime guns sold before the ATF sends a demand letter "would likely have a positive impact on the firearms industry and still meet program objectives."

"ATF has used its demand letter authority sparingly to collect crucial information from certain licensed gun dealers that can help identify illegal gun trafficking operations, " Parsons said. "These letters pose a minimal burden on gun dealers that is far outweighed by the benefits this information offers to law enforcement, and they should remain in force."

Turk's paper states that its purpose is "to provide the new administration and the Bureau multiple options to consider and discuss regarding firearms regulations."

"These general thoughts provide potential ways to reduce or modify regulations, or suggest changes that promote commerce and defend the Second Amendment without significant negative impact on ATF's mission to fight violent firearms crime and regulate the firearms industry," the paper states.

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