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Banning Guns by Changing Definitions, Part 1

The Obama administration is seeking once again to do via regulation what they would never be able to do via legislation. This time shotguns are in the crosshairs, specifically certain popular imported weapons. Even waving the bloody shirt after congresswoman Giffords was shot only moved a few members of congress, not nearly enough to enact new restrictions. Rather than face a losing fight in congress the administration decided to just emulate Humpty Dumpty from Lewis Caroll’s “Through the Looking Glass.”

‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’

‘The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’

‘The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master — that’s all.’

Humpty Dumpty in this case is the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF,) and the term that is being redefined is “Sporting Use.”  Sporting use is one of the three main thrusts of gun control efforts in America. The other two are racism and  those who openly advocate complete bans except for military and police. (The complete ban advocates often hide under cover of sporting use, but that and the racist history of gun control are topics for another day.

Sporting use was how the original distinction was made about what weapons would be subject to a special tax in the National Firearms Act (NFA) in 1934, and again in Title II of the Gun Control Act of 1968.  The congressional power to tax was used selectively to make ownership of weapons the government didn’t like burdensome and expensive. This was gun control via the back door, as even the ATF admits. As would become the pattern, politicians found that actually dealing with crime and criminals was difficult and expensive. Blaming guns and passing a law to look like they were doing something about it was much simpler.

In 1968 the idea of “sporting purpose” was made explicit when the import of weapons from overseas was banned unless the US Attorney General certified that it met one of four narrow criteria. One of these was that it was “generally recognized as particularly suitable for or readily adaptable to sporting purposes.” This led to a series of studies about what constituted a sporting purpose in 1968, 1989, 1998, and the latest released in January of 2011. (Notice that 3 of the 4 studies were done under Democrat presidents. The fourth was under Bush 41, who ran as a continuation of Reagan but broke his tax pledge and resigned from the NRA.)

The latest study (PDF,) released at the end of January 2011, centers on shotguns and once again pretends that a “sporting purpose” is the only legitimate use for a gun, despite recent Supreme Court rulings that gun ownership is an individual right and that self defense is a legitimate purpose for owning a firearm. The study spends a great deal of time defining just what sporting use is, and carefully excludes the most common sporting use, plinking.

Plinking is just setting up informal targets, often cans or bottles, sometimes paper or steel targets, and doing a bit of informal practice. That you just hung a target or paced off the distance to your informal collection of targets doesn’t mean that you aren’t engaged in a sport, any more than not using a stopwatch to time your last ski run meant that your skiing wasn’t a sport. But insuring that plinking is not considered a sport is central to regulating imports, because you can plink with almost any gun. Therefore the ATF concludes that plinking is “primarily a passtime.”

Dismissing the practical shooting sports takes a good deal more hand waving. The practical shooting sports (which I dabbled in before becoming handicapped) generally involve multiple targets that the shooter must engage, and usually must move in order to reach or see clearly. The targets may also move, swinging, rotating, or popping up for a limited time before vanishing. Usually mixed in with the targets are “no shoot” targets representing innocent bystanders. All of this is done under the relentless pressure of the clock.

Practical shooting sports are a problem for the ATF’s  narrow definition of sporting purpose. They have national organizations with tens of thousands of members, formal rules, and separate competitors by skill level so that there is competition within the brackets. One way that the ATF study gets around this is to ignore the fact that the United States Practical Shooting Association (USPSA) is not the only bastion of practical shooting, but is just the US regional division of IPSC, the International Practical Shooting Association. After all, if one looks at the IPSC one has to admit that the practical shooting sports are an international phenomenon headquartered in Oakville, Ontario, Canada with divisions in over 80 countries, from Argentina to Zimbabwe. Instead we find in the footnotes:

33 Organization websites report these membership numbers: for the United States Practical Shooting Association, approx. 19,000; AmateurTrapshooting Association, over 35,000 active members; National Skeet Shooting Association, nearly 20,000 members; National Sporting ClaysAssociation, over 22,000 members; Single Action Shooting Society, over 75,000 members.

The Single Action Shooting Society at first glance looks like it might be an apples to apples comparison, since it involves pistols, rifles, and shotguns plus movement much as the practical shooting sports do. However there is one huge difference that makes the inclusion of the SASS useful for the ATF- The Single Action Shooting Society is Cowboy Action Shooting. That is, competitors dress as period characters, and use replicas of weapons that were found in the old west. The ATF isn’t (yet) concerned with the importation of inexpensive copies of cowboy weapons from Italy.

But some of the other organizations look like they’re in the same size range as the USPSA, especially if you ignore the novice competitors that don’t join, but show up three or four times a year for a local match. So the study group brings in conservation groups:

34 Organization websites report these membership numbers: Ducks Unlimited, U.S adult 604,902 (Jan. 1, 2010); Pheasants/Quail Forever, over130,000 North American members (2010)

Now the comparison is to conservation organizations. Ducks Unlimited and Pheasants Forever focus on preserving and restoring wildlife habitat. Ducks Unlimited in particular focuses on private acquisition and management of land. These groups are practical environmentalists, some of whom also hunt. (I was a Ducks Unlimited member before I ever owned a gun. The closest I’ve come to taking wild game is a place near my home where the deer like to cross the road at twilight.) Comparing USPSA to Ducks Unlimited is comparing apples to watermelons.

The ATF has invited comments on the study:

All interested persons may submit comments on this study. Comments may be submitted by e-mail to shotgunstudy@atf.gov or by fax to (202)648-9601. Faxed comments may not exceed 5 pages. All comments must include name and mailing address. ATF encourages submission of comments no later than May 1, 2011.

Like Humpty Dumpty the Obama administration is changing the definition of  “sporting use” in order to ban certain  shotguns. But as we’ll see inPart 2, many of the features that the ATF working group’s study (PDF) says should lead to a shotgun being banned are features that can make a shotgun particularly suitable for home defense.

Cross Posted from Beregond’s Bar.

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