Republican lawmakers are demanding answers from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms & Explosives after a conservative gun rights group leaked documents showing the agency developed purported "secret guidance" regulating various firearms accessories.
A group of 20 U.S. senators led by Mike Lee (R-Utah) have asked Attorney General Merrick Garland and acting ATF Director Marvin Richardson to turn over "all internal instructions, directives, or guidance" related to the regulation of "solvent traps" and "forced reset triggers" as "unregistered silencers and machine guns, respectively."
"We write to express our grave concern over the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms & Explosives’ (ATF) continued pattern of enforcing secret guidance. This secret guidance was brought to our attention by those who have received recent threatening letters where the ATF makes blanket threats based on the recipient allegedly purchasing and possessing various firearms accessories, none of which are illegal based on any statute or regulation,” a letter sent to the Department of Justice on Friday states.
The Republicans cited internal ATF technical bulletins first published by Gun Owners Foundation, a charity that promotes public education about the Second Amendment and gun ownership. A spokeswoman for ATF said these law enforcement bulletins are periodically issued to employees and to law enforcement partners.
"The bulletins are issued to ensure awareness of issues that impact officer and public safety and are appropriately classified as 'Law Enforcement Sensitive.' They are not categorized as 'Secret' and should not be described as such," April Langwell, the chief of ATF's Public Affairs Division, said.
"Providing these bulletins is a core function of ATF as the Department of Justice agency responsible for administering the federal firearm and explosives laws," she added.
The bulletins give guidance to ATF personnel on how to "differentiate so-called 'solvent-traps' from firearm silencers." Another bulletin cited by the letter assists agents "with identifying certain machine gun conversion devices," referring to forced reset triggers.
A solvent trap is a firearm barrel cleaning accessory, a (typically metal) cylinder that can be attached to a gun barrel and used to catch cleaning fluid poured through the firearm. ATF claims that these accessories "contain multiple design characteristics of firearm silencers" and can be used as such to muffle the sound of a fired weapon.
Forced reset triggers are devices that can increase the speed with which a shooter can fire a semi-automatic firearm. They cannot convert a semi-automatic weapon into a "machine gun." The devices work by resetting the gun trigger after a shooter fires, pushing the trigger finger forward as the weapon readies to fire again.
According to the lawmakers, ATF has sent letters to gun owners in possession of these accessories, threatening them with "criminal prosecution" and possible jail time if they refuse to surrender their devices.
"Despite the significant criminal consequences attached to the unlawful manufacture, sale and possession of [National Firearms Act] items, ATF has never issued any public guidance differentiating a silencer from a solvent trap, or informing the public that it considers certain forced reset triggers to be machine guns," the letter noted. The Republicans argued that classifying these accessories as illegal is "contrary to the plain language" of federal law.
“We find the ATF’s attempt to conceal its interpretations of the law disturbing. In a free society, ‘Every citizen is presumed to know the law.’ Thus, as the Supreme Court has said, ‘it needs no argument to show that all should have free access’ to [the law’s] contents,” the letter stated.
The Republicans continued, “With this attempted secret regulation, the ATF shows an abject disregard for the fundamental principles of due process and accountable governance. Federal agencies cannot enforce the law in this manner."
The lawmakers requested that the Department of Justice and ATF turn over documents related to the internal guidance and deliver explanations on how this guidance is used by law enforcement and why it has not been made available to the public by March 25.
ATF disputes the Republicans' claims. With regard to the solvent traps, Langwell said, "ATF has for many years examined numerous devices to include fuel filters, plastic bottles, oil filters, and similar articles that if designed or redesigned to silence, muffle or diminish the report of a firearm, they would be considered 'firearms' under Federal Law defined in 18 U.S.C. 921(a)(3) or 26 U.S.C. 5845(a)(7)."
"ATF has performed numerous evaluations / examinations on 'forced reset triggers' and has made specific determinations in which 'forced reset triggers' have been classified as machineguns regulated under the NFA," she added.
Gun rights advocates applauded Sen. Lee and the other Republicans for taking action to investigate ATF's "secret guidance."
"The ATF’s recent abuses — to include the use of secretive rules and documents — is a gross dereliction of fundamental regulatory ethics and we are proud to stand with Senator Lee and his colleagues in the Senate in demanding answers from ATF,” Travis R. Stevens-White, president and CEO of the Firearms Regulatory Accountability Coalition, said.
Aidan Johnston, the director of Federal Affairs for Gun Owners of America added, "The ATF will stop at nothing to criminalize gun owners and attack the Second Amendment. This time, their scheme is to criminalize solvent traps -- tools that gun owners use while cleaning their firearms. By mislabeling solvent traps as silencers, the ATF makes it clear that they not only do not understand how firearms really work, but also that they are willing to turn law-abiding Americans into criminals overnight to push their anti-gun agenda.”