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Feinstein launches new attack; should ATF be altered or abolished?

Sen. Dianne Feinstein wants the ATF  to clam down on importation of so-called "assault weapons."
Sen. Dianne Feinstein wants the ATF to clam down on importation of so-called "assault weapons."
Alex Wong/Getty Images

This morning, the National Shooting Sports Foundation launched a nationwide campaign to counter a new effort by anti-gun California Sen. Dianne Feinstein to ban the importation of so-called “assault weapons” that she claims are not “generally recognized as particularly suitable for or readily adaptable to sporting purposes.”

Sen. Feinstein wants President Obama to “ensure that the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) fully enforces the ban on the importation of these military-style firearms.”

It’s been a bad week for the ATF leading up to yesterday’s publicity about a new subpoena issued by the House Oversight Committee Chair Rep. Darrell Issa, and now Feinstein wants to drag the agency even deeper into the mire. All of this once again raises a question that has been discussed and debated for several years: Should the role of ATF be significantly altered – say to nothing more than a regulatory operation – or should the agency, with a reputation for somewhat “rogue” behavior, be abolished altogether?

It’s a fair question, considering the re-erupting scandal over ATF “storefront sting” operations in six cities called “Operation Fearless.” As this column reported yesterday, Congressman Issa says the agency has been stonewalling for a year on his inquiries about the operation that was exposed by a series of stories in the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel.

Last weekend’s raid on California’s Ares Armor has become something of an internet sensation, with video posted on YouTube, and CEO Dimitrios Karras actively pleading his case to the court of public opinion.

People still have questions about the ATF’s horribly mismanaged Operation Fast and Furious, which allowed a couple of thousand guns to travel into the criminal pipeline to Mexico, and was the source of a gun linked directly to the murder of Border Patrol agent Brian Terry in December 2010.

Feinstein’s new campaign against guns brings the focus back on another burr under the saddle of law-abiding Americans for whom modern sporting rifles are currently the most popular gun model, and at the heart of the Ares Armor controversy as well. Ares is in a legal quagmire now for selling so-called "80 percent" polymer blanks that can be machined and drilled by home gunsmiths to house the firing controls of an AR-type rifle. ATF contends that these blanks are actually firearms by legal definition and that Ares is not a licensed firearms dealer,which Karras acknowledged in an interview, so the company cannot legally sell the polymer part. This will have to be sorted out by the courts.

But focusing on Feinstein, when she claims that such rifles are not “generally recognized as particularly suitable or readily adaptable to sporting purposes,” she displays astonishing ignorance toward how these rifles are used for sport and competition. The most common caliber, the 5.56mm NATO/.223 Remington, is perfect for coyote and varmint hunting. It s also a flat-shooting target round.

But Sen. Feinstein also raises a question that has been on the minds of gun owners since 1968: Where did this “sporting purposes” test come from? Where in the Second Amendment is there any reference to “sporting purposes?”

Anti-gunners, like those who gathered for yesterday’s press event officially launching the big-bucks campaign to pass Initiative 594 here in Washington State, frequently argue that the right to keep and bear arms relates only to militia service. If that were the case, then ownership of so-called “assault weapons” would be specifically protected by the Second Amendment, because that is exactly the type of firearm used by today’s military, with the exception of being only semiautomatic; the military rifle is capable of firing full-auto.

Back to the initial question, however; has the ATF’s behavior over the years worn out the agency’s welcome? Can the agency that let guns walk to Mexican drug cartels and mismanaged a storefront sting operation be substantially “reformed” or is it too late? Is it time to tear it all down and rebuild from scratch?

Many people in the “ATF community” are fed up. They created and participate in a forum dubbed "CleanUpATF.org,” which describes itself as “a non-profit organization dedicated to returning integrity, accountability and decency to the management of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.”

Issa’s House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform has already issued thick reports on Fast and Furious, and no doubt will release the results of its current investigation on storefront stings, provided, of course, that the agency turns over the subpoenaed documents.

But with Attorney General Eric Holder still hiding behind executive privilege on the Fast and Furious documents, and ATF apparently stonewalling on this newer scandal, it raises legitimate questions that ATF has something to hide.

Paraphrasing former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, perhaps we have to destroy it to find out what it’s doing.

Read Joe Newby's take.

Also read:

David Codrea's update on the Reese family case.

Kurt Hofmann on smart (?) guns.

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