Gun control advocates and some congressional Democrats expressed frustration Thursday that the continuing resolution being debated on the Senate floor this week seeks to make several permanent policy changes related to firearms.
Four policy riders included in the bill would bar federal funds from being used in the current fiscal year — “or any fiscal year thereafter” — in ways that gun control advocates say could help crack down on the illegal use of firearms.
One provision would require the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) to emphasize in reports that its gun trace data “cannot be used to draw broad conclusions about firearms-related crime.”
Another would keep in place a broad definition of antique guns and ammunition that may be imported into the United States. And yet another would ban any federal rule requiring gun dealers to conduct physical inventories to determine whether firearms have been lost or stolen.
The fourth would prohibit the ATF from refusing to renew a gun dealer’s license “due to a lack of business activity,” a provision that gun control groups contend would make it harder to identify potentially rogue dealers who are not involved in legitimate business transactions.
Although all of those policy directives have been included in annual appropriations bills since at least 2004, they have not been permanent changes, a Democratic Senate aide said.
The aide characterized the permanent provisions as a trade-off in negotiations that occurred late last year with House appropriators, who had sought to make additional gun-related riders permanent in the continuing resolution. Other riders — such as one banning the activities of the ATF from being transferred to another government entity, such as the more powerful FBI — are included in the Senate bill but not on a permanent basis.
According to the Senate aide, House appropriators also sought to include another provision that Democrats and the White House viewed as far more objectionable.
The aide said the Senate “fought off” a House effort to ban the ATF from requiring gun dealers in four southwestern states to notify it when they sold two or more of a certain kind of semiautomatic rifle to the same buyer within five days. The Obama administration has issued that rule covering gun dealers in Arizona, California, New Mexico and Texas, but many gun rights advocates view it as a veiled form of government gun registration.
Although the Senate’s gun language was agreed to late last year — before the fatal shooting of 20 first-graders at a Connecticut elementary school — gun-control advocates and some Democratic members of Congress said the deal now looks like poor timing. They said it undermines a concurrent effort in both chambers to crack down on gun violence.
Rep. Mike Quigley, an Illinois Democrat who is sponsoring legislation (HR 427) that would require the kind of gun store inventory-checking that the Senate language seeks to ban in perpetuity, said he would oppose the Senate’s continuing resolution if the House votes on it. He said he is “going to start getting the word out” to his House colleagues about the Senate language in an effort to get them to oppose the bill.
“I get what they’re trying to do in response to the House. Unfortunately, it’s a very critical part of the legislation,” Quigley said. “It’s just as frustrating as it could possibly be. This town is famous for poison pills, but this is our one bite at the apple [on gun control]. This is our one chance.”
Over the last week, the Senate Judiciary Committee has advanced legislation to ban assault weapons (S 150), require expanded background checks for gun sales (S 374) and crack down on gun traffickers (S 54).
Quigley said the Senate rider dealing with gun inventories is the “antithesis” of his bill and specifically undermines the Senate’s own gun trafficking proposal. He said the Senate is “pounding its chest” by saying publicly that it is cracking down on gun traffickers while quietly taking up appropriations language that makes it harder for federal authorities to track illegal guns.
Jim Kessler, senior vice president for policy at the centrist Democratic think tank Third Way, said he saw the influence of the National Rifle Association in the Senate appropriations language, noting that the powerful gun rights group has worked to include the language in spending bills for years.
“It shows that the NRA is always on offense and rarely on defense,” said Kessler, a former legislative director for Sen. Charles E. Schumer, the New York Democrat who is spearheading an effort to require universal background checks for all gun sales. “Even in a very adverse situation for them, in which many in Congress and the White House are trying to do something constructive to keep guns out of the hands of criminals and crazy people, the NRA continues to advance its agenda.”
Kessler said gun-related legislation “should move through regular order, not some back-room stopgap spending bill. It’s time for that practice to stop.”
The NRA did not respond to an inquiry about whether it lobbied in favor of the policy riders. The White House also did not respond to requests for comment.
Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., takes a selfie with his cut-out head during the Hoops for Youth 16th annual charity basketball game held at George Washington University's Smith Center, September 8, 2014. The members of Congress team beat the lobbyist team 46-40. Buy photo here.