President Obama’s new directions to the ATF to clarify registration requirements for firearm sales

President Obama has announced 23 executive actions for gun control, but what will the actual effects of these actions be?

Official White House Photo by Lawrence Jackson.

Editor’s note: This is the first article in a two-part series covering the different aspects of President Obama’s executive actions. To view the second article in this series, please click here.

In an attempt to regulate the firearms industry, President Obama announced that the White House will be taking 23 executive  actions (not executive orders) in an attempt to disregard Congress’s inaction and curb gun violence in the United States.  In a White House press release, the Obama Administration made clear their plan to achieve these 23 executive actions by focusing on four major policy ideas: (1) Keep guns out of the wrong hands through background checks; (2) Make our communities safer from gun violence; (3) Increase mental health treatment and reporting to the background check system; and (4) Shape the future of gun safety technology.

One of the changes that has drawn ire from conservatives is the action directing the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) to ensure that anyone “in the business of” selling firearms is licensed to do so and are conducting proper background checks on potential guy buyers.  Federal Law defines someone “in the business of” selling firearms as: “a person who devotes time, attention, and labor to dealing in firearms as a regular course of trade or business with the principal objective of livelihood and profit through the repetitive purchase and resale of firearms.”  The definition does not include citizens that sell firearms “occasionally.”

Essentially, the action the ATF will take in regards to this executive action is to do nothing but clarify existing law . . .

According to Professor Jonathan Alder of the Washington Post, this particular executive action has more bark than bite: “The ATF is achieving this (ensuring the proper parties are registered under federal law) not by issuing new regulations … Instead, the ATF issued a guidance document that simply explicates what this legal requirement means, providing examples of the sorts of things that would indicate that a given individual is in the gun business … or something of that sort.”

Essentially, the action the ATF will take in regards to this executive action is to do nothing but clarify existing law so fewer mistakes are made and more people are correctly covered under the law.  Adler says that the ATF documents will not expand the pool of sellers that are not already registered under the law.  However, it is plausible that a practical effect of this clarification could be that some amateur gun sellers or estate auctioneers would become included under the licensing requirement if they were confused before the clarification.  The new registrants will likely be few and far between, as the fine for not complying with existing federal law is steep.

Adler believes the documents might alert some people that they should be registered under current law

A good question that Adler and others are asking is if the new ATF documents do nothing but restate current law and do not broaden the reach of current law, why is President Obama going through all of this trouble?  There is certainly a political side to the answer.  Given that Congressional Republicans have consistently blocked President Obama’s gun control measures, President Obama might simply be throwing a bone to Democrats that are longing for some changes, as small as they may be.

Adler believes the documents might alert some people that they should be registered under current law.  Professor Eugene Kontorovich believes one goal of the Obama Administration is to scare those citizens that are not required to register, but are pretty close to the line between “occasional” and “in the business of.”  Whatever the motivation, time will tell how effective President Obama’s executive actions on gun proposals are.


Avatar photo
About Alex Rector, Staff Writer (6 Articles)
Alex Rector is 2016 graduate and served as a Staff Writer for the Campbell Law Observer for the 2015-2016 academic year. He went to Campbell University and majored in Economics with a concentration in Pre-Law. Alex is originally from Hickory, North Carolina, and between undergrad and law school he worked at the Civitas Institute and the North Carolina General Assembly as the Clerk for the House Finance Committee.
Contact: Email