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November 20, 2015

Everytown Flunks “Engaged in the Business” 101


DSC_0091Michael Bloomberg’s gun control group known as Everytown for Gun Safety pushed out a paper this month calling for President Obama to redefine who is a firearms dealer by drastically changing what it means to be “engaged in the business.”

Federal law requires a license to engage in the business of dealing firearms. ATF regulations define the term to essentially capture individuals who earn a livelihood from buying and selling firearms, but to deliberately exclude those who make the occasional sale, exchange or purchase for personal collections or as a hobby.

In a drastic reversal from prior efforts, gun control groups now want to see the definition broadly expanded. During the Clinton Administration, these same advocates worked to reduce the number of licenses given to what the groups vilified as so called-“kitchen table” dealers and to ensure those with licenses were actually engaged in the business of dealing firearms. The goal now is to once again increase the number of licensees.

The paper argues that there are too many people illegally “engaged in the business” of buying and selling firearms without a license, and that law enforcement is “unable to stop them.” As the whole paper is based on a questionable analysis of prosecution data, obviously law enforcement agencies are in fact enforcing the law and those breaking the law are being prosecuted.

But this lapse in logic is not the only methodological issue here. The analysis did not stop at reviewing prosecution data. The “researchers” also hired private investigators to call individuals with guns for sale and using their phone chats to divine whether they may have been violating the law. Casual statements such as someone saying they are on a particular online firearm marketplace “all the time,” were taken to prove that the individual was not just enjoying legally participating in his hobby, but was making his living from the purchase and sale of firearms – as were statements that some firearms had not been fired. Because we know from other leisure activities like baseball card collecting that a hobbyist would never keep items in pristine condition and enjoy the related activities of buying, selling and trading with other enthusiasts.

Let’s ignore for a moment the seriously flawed methodology. What does their analysis find? “The sellers were often criminals themselves.” Ok, so criminals may be breaking the law. The question here becomes whether criminals will seek licenses if the definition of engaged in the business changes, or if they will continue with their illegal behavior regardless of a regulatory change. It doesn’t take a glossy report to tell you what the answer is likely to be.

Interestingly, the report does unwittingly prove that gun shows and online sales are not the problematic Wild West that gun control groups claim they are. Defendants only used them in a small minority, 10 percent, of the cases examined. The other 90 percent of the time the individuals accused of buying or selling firearms illegally were not relying on gun shows, online markets or print ads. None of this is surprising, but we look forward to the gun control groups backing off on demonizing firearm transactions conducted through these legitimate forums.

Rather than arguing that a change in the definition will have any impact on criminal behavior, if there are challenges in enforcing the law, perhaps this calls for more resources for ATF. Certainly that would lead to a better outcome than adding to ATF’s workload thousands of individuals selling off their personal collections or exchanging firearms with other hobbyists.