In recent weeks, several licensed gun dealers across Arizona have undergone compliance inspections by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), and many report the experience was exasperating at best, obstructionist at worst.
The concerns have garnered the attention of 25 U.S. House Republicans, including Arizona’s Andy Biggs, who wrote a letter Wednesday to ATF’s acting director asking if the agency is intentionally undertaking an “unprecedented effort to revoke Federal Firearm Licenses (FFLs) from law-abiding business owners” across Arizona and the rest of the country.
“The DOJ’s efforts to force its administration’s agenda onto ATF are particularly distrusting,” according to the letter, which alleges ATF management has also implemented a “quota system” for revoking FFLs which has pitted the agency’s various field offices against each other.
“This commandeering of agency discretion to support the administration’s agenda undermines ATF’s ability to function as a specialized agency and is rapidly destroying the trust and confidence ATF has worked hard to establish with the firearms industry over many decades,” the letter continues.
An FFL holder must make their business records and inventory available at any time to ATF for a compliance inspection by an Industry Operations Investigator (IOI). The investigators ensure FFL holders are complying with all federal laws and regulations.
There were 265 such inspections for the federal Fiscal Year 2020 (which runs Oct. 1 to Sept. 30) within the ATF’s Phoenix Field Office covering Arizona and New Mexico. By comparison, there have already been 279 inspections finalized by the Phoenix Field Office the first eight months of FY2022.
This puts the local IOIs on track to complete nearly 420 compliance inspections. And the number of proposed licensed revocations far outpaces the FY2020 rate.
But even if an inspection shows no irregularities or suspicious conduct, a law-abiding FFL can still be at risk, Biggs noted. This is because firearms related laws and regulations -such as the Gun Control Act and the National Firearms Act- are being interpreted in a partisan manner aligning with the philosophy of the ATF Director and the President.
The strong anti-firearms mindset in the White House is also contributing to some IOIs in Arizona giving priority to certain regulations over others. It also allows the ATF to refer to years-old inspection findings to support a current revocation recommendation.
The mindset is even contributing to a growing number of complaints by FFL holders that some ATF investigators have chosen to make a big problem out of simple clerical issues, such as writing 45 Caliber instead of .45 Caliber on ATF documents.
The negative and antagonistic shift in ATF’s institutional attitude toward FFL dealers has also been recognized by the National Rifle Association (NRA) and its lobbying arm, the Institute for Legislative Action.
A recent article by NRA-ILA Executive Director Jason Ouimet addressed how President Joe Biden has been “weaponizing” the ATF against the firearm industry and gun owners “to try to unilaterally inflict as much damage as possible” through administrative actions.
“The ATF under Biden has already been on a campaign of more-restrictive legal interpretations, ‘zero tolerance’ inspections of dealers that make occasional paperwork or procedural errors, and extensive changes to administrative regulations aimed at facilitating crackdowns,” Ouimet wrote in the July issue of American Hunter released in mid-June.
Ouimet also drew attention to the fact ATF has no Congressionally confirmed director for the agency’s 5,000 plus employees. The current nominee, Steven Dettelbach, is a former U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Ohio who has what the NRA characterizes as “extreme” views on firearms policy.
Dettelbach has never been an ATF special agent nor served as any other type of law enforcement officer. He also has no experience as the head of a federal law enforcement agency, which raised concerns during the Senate Judiciary Committee’s hearings earlier this month.
The committee eventually cleared Dettelbach but the full Senate has not yet been asked to take up his nomination. In the meantime, the ATF is being temporarily run by Gary Restaino, the U.S. Attorney for the District of Arizona, who like Dettelbach has no hands-on law enforcement experience.
It is to Restaino that the members of Congress submitted their letter seeking several answers about the ATF’s apparent efforts to advance Biden’s anti-gun agenda. He was given a July 15 deadline to respond.