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Hullabaloo


Friday, January 18, 2013

 
A recent history of jackboot rhetoric

by digby

I love this story at Mother Jones about how Reagan and the NRA killed the ATF:

To understand how the ATF became the weakest of law enforcement agencies, you have to go back to President Ronald Reagan's first term.

The 1968 Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act, the first major piece of gun control legislation since the Capone days, led the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax Division of the Department of the Treasury to sprout a third responsibility: handguns. With the market for moonshine collapsed—due to a global spike in sugar prices—the division's primary investigative responsibility for most of its history withered. The new mandate to regulate arms sales filled the void. It also made the bureau a natural foil for the nascent gun lobby, and the NRA, whose leadership was fast transitioning from a moderate coalition of sportsmen to a band of true believers, went to work to make the agency a pariah.

Republicans and Democrats alike hammered the agency for years. Appearing in a 1981 NRA-produced film, Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.) charged, "If I were to select a jackbooted group of fascists who are perhaps as large a danger to American society as I could pick today, I would pick BATF." A 1982 Senate report blasted the agency's supposed "practically reprehensible" enforcement tactics.

Leading the charge was Reagan. On the campaign trail, he'd bashed the ATF and vowed to dissolve it. Once in Washington, Reagan, with the NRA's backing, proposed folding the ATF into the Secret Service—the two branches of the Treasury most unlike all the others. ATF agents would help the Secret Service handle its beefed-up responsibilities of campaign years and expand its investigative powers. It would have been a death sentence for the bureau.

But then the NRA had had a change of heart. The organization's strategists came to worry that if gun law enforcement was handed to the Secret Service, one of the few federal agencies with a reputation for competence, gun owners might actually have something to fear. And, they feared, that if the agency did become part of the Secret Service, they'd lose an easy target.

The NRA realized, "'Oh my God, we're gonna lose the ATF!'" recalls William Vizzard, a professor of criminology at California State University-Sacramento, who worked for bureau at the time. "It would have been like removing the Soviets during the Cold War, for the Defense Department—there's nobody to point to."

Working in conjunction with the liquor lobby (which had its own misgivings about suddenly being regulated by the Customs Service), the NRA coaxed a friendly lawmaker, Sen. James Abdnor (R-S.D.), into scuttling the merger by inserting language in a budget bill. As Vizzard puts it, "If it weren't for the NRA and the liquor industry, there would be no ATF today, because the merger with the Secret Service would have just gone ahead."

Once the NRA had saved the ATF, it focused on how to neuter it. Four years after bargaining for the preservation of the ATF, the NRA helped Congress formally handcuff the agency, in the form of the 1986 Firearms Owners Protection Act. The law, which included a handful of token regulations (such as a ban on machine guns), made it all but impossible for the government to prosecute corrupt gun dealers. It prohibited the bureau from compiling a national database of retail firearm sales, reduced the penalty for dealers who falsified sales records from a felony to a misdemeanor, and raised the threshold for prosecution for unlicensed dealing.

Perhaps most glaringly, the ATF was explicitly prohibited from conducting more than one inspection of a single dealer in a given year, meaning that once an agent had visited a shop, that dealer was free to flout the law.

Those restrictions haven't changed over the last two decades. "There's no other law enforcement entity in the country that has any restriction remotely like that," says Jon Lowy, the director of the legal action project at the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence.

The only time I ever heard any of those Liberty Lovers complain about jack-booted thugs was when they complained about the ATF (and sometimes the FBI if it was investigating militia's or some such.) But they did it enough that the silly libertarians got it in their heads that these guys were kindred spirits, when in fact they never met a drug law or a government investigation of political crimes they didn't like. But when it came to guns these guys basically used every trick in the book to defang the ATF and perpetuate a scare campaign that people needed to buy more and more guns to fight off the "jack booted thugs" who were coming for them. And the firearms manufacturers thanked them generously. (This is why I find the Fast and Furious "scandal" so hilarious. After years and years of demonizing the ATF for being a bunch of gun control fascists, these same people are criticizing the ATF for failing to properly control guns. You just can't win with these people.)

But it is important to look back at this history in order to understand why so many politicians ended up throwing up their hands and walking away from the issue. This was a bipartisan effort spearheaded by some people who know from fascism and weren't afraid to intimidate. Unfortunately, it turned our country into a shooting gallery.

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