President Obama announced that his Administration would do all in its power to stop gun violence. By that he seems to have meant reducing private ownership of firearms. Now, it turns out that he is not just doing things within his presidential power to achieve that objective – he is usurping legislative power to amend statutes unilaterally.
On January 7, 2014, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (“ATF”), issued Proposed Rules designed to vastly increase the number of Americans prohibited from owning firearms, including many U.S. Veterans, by changing the meaning of words contained in laws passed by Congress.
On behalf of Gun Owners of America, Inc. and Gun Owners Foundation, our firm filed comments opposing those proposed ATF rule changes.
Federal law prohibits persons who have been “adjudicated as a mental defective” from owning firearms. ATF claims that the terminology Congress used in the statute is “outdated,” purporting to “clarify” the term, ATF instead wants to rewrite the statute, greatly expanding its scope.
ATF alleges that Congress intended the law to apply “broadly” to “unstable” and “irresponsible” people, and has defined the term as including people who suffer from a “mental illness, incompetency, condition, or disease.” But that is not what the statute says. A “mental defective” is a person of “marked subnormal intelligence” or “gross ignorance or imbecility.” Congress never intended the law to apply to combat veterans suffering from PTSD, but that is one of the groups that have been targeted for disarmament.
Federal law also prohibits persons who have been “committed to a mental institution” from owning firearms. ATF wants to change the meaning of that phrase to apply to “both inpatient and outpatient commitments.” Those are, of course, very different matters. Inpatient commitment is generally used when a person is unable to function in society and needs to be forcibly confined for treatment in order to protect him and/or the public. Outpatient treatment, however, is for less significant problems, and may require a person only to take medication or follow some other course of prescribed treatment.
Finally, our comments noted that ATF never considered the Second Amendment when proposing its new definitions. After Heller, though, the government can no longer assume it may deprive people of their firearms rights at will. Instead of requiring a formal adjudication by a court before a person’s rights are taken from him, ATF has permitted unelected, unaccountable bureaucrats, such as those at the Veterans Administration, to decide willy-nilly who may and may not own guns.
This sort of lawless activity may be what Americans are accustomed to from this rogue agency, but it is not what they deserve. Government officials are the servants of the people, not their overlords.