By Chris W. Cox
NRA-ILA Executive Director
One of the things I like most about the NRA members I meet is their sense of justice and fairness. We don’t like laws and regulations that treat people differently depending on where they live. Contrary to what President Obama said during the 2008 campaign, citizens have the same rights whether they live in Chicago or Cheyenne. The same principle applies to guns—for practical purposes, all semi-automatics function the same, regardless of their external features. It’s just common sense. But federal bureaucrats are now proposing to ban certain shotguns from importation, even when the same guns are legal to make and sell domestically.
This latest effort to sabotage the principle of equal treatment under the law is made possible by a provision of the Gun Control Act of 1968, which limits the importation of firearms to those that are “particularly suitable for or readily adaptable to sporting purposes.” Now, bureaucrats are pushing the fuzzy boundaries of this vague language to ban entire new categories of guns. They’ve done it before and they’ll do it again—unless and until this arbitrary language is permanently changed.
From 1968 until 1989, the “sporting purposes” test was rarely discussed, because the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (BATF, now BATFE) interpreted the language conservatively. The agency approved the importation of most firearms, except those of such poor design or quality as to be unsafe or wildly inaccurate.
In 1989, the trouble began. Under political pressure, the BATFE reinterpreted the law to justify banning firearms that had previously been approved for importation. And they’ve done it again and again since then, responding directly to shifting political tides. As a Clinton White House official put it in 1998, the goal became “bending the law as far as we can to capture a whole new class of guns.”
First it was handguns, then semi-automatic rifles—and now they’re after your defensive shotgun. In the most recent example, BATFE has set out to prohibit the importation of any shotgun that has an adjustable-length stock, a forward grip or a magazine that holds more than five rounds—or any one of seven other features or characteristics. A bureau “working group” concluded that “certain shotgun features are not particularly suitable or readily adaptable for sporting purposes” and “shotguns with any one of these features are most appropriate for military or law enforcement use.”
But the law does not base a firearm’s importability on a single feature, nor upon whether a firearm or a firearm feature might have some military or law enforcement use. The law is only concerned with whether a firearm is suitable for, or readily adaptable to, “sporting purposes.” But it seems that the regulators have a different idea about exactly what’s “sporting” than you or I do.
The working group took the position that most forms of recreational target shooting are not “sporting.” I consider an afternoon of informal target shooting to be very sporting, and I suspect you do, too. But BATFE dismissed that as a “pastime,” and apparently a “pastime” can’t be “sporting.” These are your tax dollars at work, folks.
The report did acknowledge that organized target shooting competitions are sporting, but it was downright picky about which competitions to recognize. It admitted that practical shooting is well-established in the United States, with a following rivaling that of skeet, trap and sporting clays, but refused to consider it “sporting.”
The BATFE explanation for this decision was outrageous—a classic case of bureaucrats painting themselves into a corner. The “working group” said that if practical shooting were defined as “sporting,” the BATFE might be forced to reconsider its previous bans on the importation of semi-automatic rifles that are commonly used for recreational and competitive target shooting, as well as its ban on the importation of semi-automatic handguns that were popular among recreational target shooters. Those bans were based in part on the premise that practical shooting isn’t a “sport” but a “combat” activity—a strange idea when you consider that the Olympics include events with “combat” ancestry, from boxing to biathlon and from javelin throwing to judo.
And, of course, all this nonsense over what is and is not officially a “sporting purpose” ignores the fact, now confirmed by the U.S. Supreme Court, that the Second Amendment guarantees our right to own firearms mainly for defense—not for sport.
NRA-ILA submitted vigorous and detailed comments in opposition to this gun-ban proposal, and those comments are posted at www.nraila.org/shotgunstudy. But whatever the agency’s final decision, the real lesson is that the “sporting purposes” law should be changed—not only to protect the importation of firearms that are useful for defense, but to prevent the agency from further abusing its authority and limiting our rights.
James W. Porter II, PRESIDENT
Allan Cors, FIRST VICE PRESIDENT
Pete Brownell, SECOND VICE PRESIDENT
Wayne LaPierre, EXECUTIVE VICE PRESIDENT
Edward J. Land Jr., SECRETARY
Wilson H. Phillips Jr., TREASURER
Kyle Weaver, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, GENERAL OPERATIONS
Christopher W. Cox, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, INSTITUTE FOR LEGISLATIVE ACTION