I am not sure who he was, but when English jurist Lord Sowell in 1788 wrote that, “precedent embalms a principle,” he could just as well have been addressing 21st Century policy makers here in America as he was the protagonists in an 18th Century British court ruling. As gun owners here in America look with trepidation toward a Biden-Harris Administration come January 20th, a precedent set by the Trump Administration is likely to haunt them.
Three years ago in Las Vegas, Nevada, mass murderer Stephen Paddock slaughtered 58 innocent people and wounded hundreds more, shooting into a concert audience from a hotel window on The Strip. Among the tools he used in this horrific crime was a device known as a “bump stock.” This contraption, which never has been considered by gun aficionados to be a legitimate firearm accessory, is a piece of plastic with no moving parts. It can, however, be used to increase the rate of fire for certain semi-automatic rifles, even as it reduces accuracy.
In response to the Paddock mass murder, in 2018 the Department of Justice directed that the ATF (Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives) change federal regulations regarding machine guns, so that a “bump stock” would fall within the definition of a “machine gun.” With that one “stroke of the pen,” a piece of plastic previously lawful to own, was rendered illegal.
Unlike gun control by legislation, this was gun control by fiat. Elected Members of Congress played no role in the decision, having already punted on the question -- with some members afraid to upset their pro-Second Amendment constituents, and others fearful that their anti-gun voters would be angered because they were not doing more to restrict firearms and accessories.
Thus did a piece of plastic with no moving parts become a “machine gun,” and starting last year, every person who had previously purchased or otherwise acquired such a lawful device, would henceforth have to destroy it, turn it over to the feds for them to destroy, or be considered an unlawful owner of a machine gun.
Federal regulations that by their terms defy common sense but nevertheless carry the force and effect of law, are by no means something new. However, considering the undisguised antipathy which both Joe Biden and Kamala Harris have for firearms, this particular precedent is certain to prove troublesome for gun owners in the coming four years.
Consider the AR-15 rifle, by far the most popular rifle in America, with upwards of 18 million estimated to be the hands of private citizens. This semi-automatic rifle is used widely in marksmanship contests, for hunting, and for self-defense in millions of homes and businesses across the country. Biden and Harris, however, consider the AR-15 to be a “weapon of war,” and going after it is almost certain to be one of the early ways their Administration will seek to solidify its “progressive” credentials. What better way to justify such a move, than to employ the same regulatory legerdemain by which the Trump Administration outlawed bump stocks.
One step in the plan to start removing AR-15 rifles from homes, businesses, and gun clubs across the country would be for Biden’s ATF to start requiring each such rifle to be registered with the agency under the National Firearms Act and pay a $200 tax stamp. This would result in an estimated $3.6 billion windfall for Uncle Sam. For the incoming Administration and to the gun control movement broadly, this tax would hit the wallets of the new disfavored caste: well-to-do gun owners.
In reality, however, this “small” tax, as with other “sin taxes” like those on cigarettes and alcohol, disproportionately hurts the very constituents Biden and Harris claim to champion – low-income wage earners and minorities. These are the gun owners far less able to afford a tax levied for the “privilege” of exercising a constitutionally guaranteed right by owning a firearm of proven effectiveness and value. How the incoming Administration then deals with this speedbump on its drive to begin ridding the country of inappropriate “weapons of war,” will be an interesting sideshow; but rest assured, it will not slow their gun control game plan in which they will use using every precedent they can uncover.
Bob Barr represented Georgia’s 7th District in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1995 to 2003 and was the U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Georgia from 1986 to 1990. He served as an official with the CIA during the 1970s.