By Jeffrey E. Folloder, Executive Director, NFATCA
The United States Congress is composed of Representatives and Senators. Collectively, they are known as legislators. Most states echo this structure and it logically follows that legislators create legislation, the laws of the land. What does not logically follow is that the legislation created by such august bodies winds up being, well, just plain bad. Our legislators have always existed in somewhat of a “bright light” environment. Much of what they do is for show and much of what they produce falls under the heading of "seemed like a good idea at the time." As members of the firearms community, we are all too familiar with the effects of "bad" legislation. Frequently, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) is presented with the unenviable task of trying to divine exactly what was meant by legislation that is poorly written and filled with ambiguity. Further, slight changes in legislation tend to instigate comprehensive reviews of existing regulatory practice, which can frustrate the efforts of law-abiding license holders and citizens, alike. Such is the case of ATF's recent attempts to comply with state legislation.
Most readers are aware that Illinois is one of the most firearms restrictive states in the Union. Possessing a firearm in Illinois requires significantly more bureaucracy than most other states and the world of NFA is all but closed to just about everyone. With that said, Illinois has generally recognized that there are certain reasonable exceptions to these onerous restrictions that are granted to licensed firearms manufacturers. Various portions of 720 ILCS allow manufacturers to lawfully transfer suppressors and short barreled rifles in the course of their business. ATF has historically granted transfers of these NFA items to and from properly licensed manufacturers with SOT status. That was the case until just a few months ago. After a review by a lawyer in ATF's Counsel's Office, it was decided that the Illinois statutes were "ambiguous." NFA Branch was instructed to reject all Form 3 transfer requests, even for manufacturers. Without even the briefest wisp of a notice, NFA Branch did begin rejecting routine transfers that had been without issue before. And several of our members howled in protest. Those same members also picked up the phone and called on the NFATCA for assistance because their livelihood, their ability to earn a living, was placed in jeopardy by a seemingly arbitrary change in posture by a single lawyer.
The NFATCA got involved immediately. The first order of business was to inform everyone not to expect instant results. We all know that nothing happens with any speed in any government agency and "course corrections" would be no exception. The NFATCA reached out to ATF at various levels to determine what had changed and why. More importantly, we ascertained what elements would be needed to be brought to bear in order to return to allowing licensed manufacturers in Illinois to possess suppressors and SBRs in lawful commerce. The resulting choreography would have made a ballet director's production of Swan Lake seem trivial in comparison.
- Illinois State police had to be contacted. Was there any published change in implementing regulation of 720 ILCS? No. Would you confirm that in writing? Cannot do that (NFATCA is not a "citizen" of Illinois).
- ATF was contacted about what prompted the change at the federal level. What was loosely described as a "routine review" of the statutes meant that ATF was erring on the side of caution and absent an official legal challenge from someone with standing, the change would stand.
- The NFATCA determined that the Attorney General of Illinois would need to render a statement that there had been no change in the legislation and that licensed manufacturers are still exempt from the general prohibitions of 720 ILCS. Of course, the NFATCA is, once again, not a citizen of Illinois, which meant that the Attorney General's office was under no obligations to grant our request or even acknowledge it.
- The NFATCA then rounded up several of our members who were citizens of Illinois AND licensed manufacturers and asked them to document the amount of economic harm that they had suffered thus far as a direct result of ATF's change in posture.
- All of this information was compiled and presented to ATF under the premise that we (NFATCA) would be happy to facilitate having our Illinois manufacturers demonstrate their standing to the Illinois Attorney General and then demand that ATF remove all obstacles to the conducting of lawful commerce in Illinois.
- And then we waited.
About three months after this rather technical mess started, the NFATCA received a phone call from a senior manager at ATF. The scene could best be equated to an NFL head coach throwing the red flag in order to challenge the ruling on the field. Evidence in the form of the communication with Illinois State Police, Illinois citizens, the Illinois Attorney General's office and documentation of sustained economic harm became required consideration. The phone call from ATF sounded pretty much like "after further review, the ruling on the field is reversed!" Friends, I rarely use the term "gobsmacked," but that is the only way to describe my reaction. This is how government is supposed to work, but it was not expected that anything involving the governmental entities of Illinois and ATF would wind up being settled so efficiently and in what we always believed to be the "right" way. We notified our manufacturer members of the reversal and exactly what documentation and citation should be added to transfer requests in order to expedite the process. And everyone was happy.
I am happy to report that a similar situation in Washington State was resolved in a similarly expeditious manner. Yes, the NFA community took issue with an ATF interpretation of state legislation. Yes, the state attorney general correctly supported our position and ATF reverted to the status quo. Was this glamorous? Not really. Did it change the landscape? Not quite. But it did demonstrate that there absolutely is a course of redress within the ATF and that NFATCA is skillful in wielding those tools of redress on behalf of our membership and the firearms community. Not all issues will get resolved in short order, but with your help and support, they will all eventually get there. Come visit us at www.nfatca.org, join in the discussions at our forum at www.nfatcaforums.org and consider supporting our effort with a membership... today!
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