By Jeff Knox
(August 4, 2016) The Obama administration has announced new regulatory guidelines that will drive thousands of small gunsmiths out of business. This reinterpretation of existing regulations lowers the bar for what constitutes “manufacturing” of firearms, and will require that any gunsmith who performs any service more involved than simply cleaning or replacing old parts with functionally identical new parts register as a firearm manufacturer and pay a $2250 annual registration fee.
Media reports about this bureaucratic sleight of hand, primarily in the gun press, have ranged from bad to cataclysmic, and many of the reports erroneously state that the new standards are part of an Executive Order from the President. It’s important to understand the real threat posed by this regulatory policy shift. Exaggeration and inaccuracy only serve to confuse the matter and will lead to concerns being dismissed as paranoid hype.
Here’s what is really happening, and how it will negatively impact gunsmiths and gun owners.
Licensing of firearms businesses was instituted under the Gun Control Act of 1968. Prior to that, there were no licensing requirements for firearm dealers or gunsmiths. After World War II, during the Cold War, various nations got together and began implementing structured agreements regarding the export of military hardware and technology that might serve to escalate conflict, foment war, or support international terrorism. Like gun control laws in the U.S., the stated rational for the agreements was to keep weapons of war out of the hands of dangerous people; in this case revolutionary groups, tyrannical dictators, or governments engaged in territorial disputes. This effort culminated in the Arms Export Control Act of 1976, or AECA, and its accompanying regulations, the International Traffic in Arms Regulations, or ITAR, which all fall under the purview of the State Department – you know that outfit Hillary Clinton used to head, which is now headed by famous war protester, John Kerry.
When most people think of military arms control, they think of nuclear missiles, fighter jets, tanks, and artillery, but the AECA and ITAR reach far beyond bombs and cannons. Almost anything that can be construed to be related to military activities or weaponry can be regulated under ITAR, including small arms, communications equipment, and technical information on any relevant subject such as encryption technology. This broad and growing definition of “Arms” has generated confusion and frustration in a wide variety of areas. Since 1999 there has been a controversy raging over the State Department’s use of the AECA to assume control over U.S. satellite technology. Academics and the satellite industry argue that ITAR restrictions have seriously damaged the U.S. commercial satellite business, and is harming academic advancement in a variety of fields by restricting who can participate in development, or even discussion, of various technology projects.
When the hardcore libertarian group, Defense Distributed, developed plans for printing a single-shot pistol and a functional lower for an AR15-style rifle on 3D printers, it was ITAR that was used to pull those plans off of the internet – even though plans and CNC machining programs for making the same parts the old fashioned have been in common circulation for decades. This led to a proposal that could have illegalized just about any technical discussion of firearms or other “Arms-related” subjects on the internet or in periodicals that are sold in other countries. This could have impacted everyone from HAM radio buffs to computer programmers and all those people on YouTube who delve into electronics and model rockets.
Thankfully the objections to that proposal were loud enough to cause the administration to back away from the plan, but now they are declaring their intention to treat even the most basic of gunsmithing tasks as protected AECA technology. Under these new guidelines, any gunsmith who does any work that “improves” the function or accuracy of a firearm is engaged in “manufacturing” and subject to ITAR. That means that threading a barrel or drilling holes for a scope mount – even just once – makes that gunsmith a manufacturer, required to register under ITAR, pay a minimum $2250 registration fee annually, and be subject to prosecution and stiff fines for violating any of the myriad rules and regulations dealing with “export” of military technology.
From a practical standpoint, it is unlikely that government enforcers would go after a gunsmith who re-barrels a target rifle for a resident alien competitive shooter – which would be completely legal under federal gun laws, but a felony under ITAR because it would be considered an export, even if the guy never takes the gun out of the States – but they say they are going to demand that every gunsmith who performs this sort of work register under ITAR and pay the $2250 fee. That’s a significant hit for a small business, especially considering that the business gets absolutely nothing in return except additional paperwork requirements and the threat of arrest and bankruptcy at the whim of a faceless bureaucrat if he doesn’t figure out and follow every ITAR rule.
Ayn Rand said: “The hallmark of authoritarian systems is the creation of innumerable, indecipherable laws. Such systems make everyone an un-indicted felon and allow for the exercise of arbitrary government power via selective prosecution.”
That is what we see in this expansion of ITAR, a government driving productive businesses into the ground and laying the groundwork to destroy those that remain.
Congress must address this injustice, but the only way they will act is if people stand in righteous outrage at this overreach of federal authority.
You can contact your members of Congress by calling the Capitol Switchboard at 202-224-3121.