The executive action President Obama announced on Tuesday reverses course on a key Clinton-era policy that sought to reduce the number of federal firearms licensees.
The Obama administration's push to require more gun sellers to obtain a license from the ATF could under some circumstances define those who sell even a single firearm as "engaged in the business" of firearms sales. That represents a stark contrast from the Clinton administration’s approach in the 1990s, when the White House successfully slashed the number of licensees by raising fees on license applications and requiring applicants to submit both fingerprints and photographs to the ATF.
"The Clinton Administration ordered the bureau to tighten the process," the New York Times reported at the time. "Since August, applicants have been fingerprinted and photographed as well, and the bureau now tells applicants that their names will be sent to the police, who may check on their compliance with the law."
The actions taken by Bill Clinton, whose wife is currently seeking the Democratic nomination for President, resulted in the number of licensed dealers dropping from about 252,000 in 1993 to about 55,000 in 2014.
In 1994, ATF officials complained that many FFLs were not actually "engaged in the business" and oversight of the small sellers was cumbersome, if not impossible. "Probably 70 percent of the people holding licenses shouldn't hold them," one ATF spokesperson told the Times. "Most applicants declare that they intend to buy and sell guns as a primary livelihood, but in reality, the firearms bureau says, most people want to buy guns at wholesale prices for personal use," the paper added.
"We have about 250 inspectors to inspect more than 250,000 firearms licensees, and our director has testified in Congress that we get around to large dealers once every two or three years," another spokesperson for the agency told the paper. "The smaller ones, the kitchen-table dealers, might not see an inspector for 10 years."
On Tuesday, President Obama released a statement outlining the objectives behind his action seeking to force more people to obtain an FFL. "Quantity and frequency of sales are relevant indicators," the statement read. "There is no specific threshold number of firearms purchased or sold that triggers the licensure requirement. But it is important to note that even a few transactions, when combined with other evidence, can be sufficient to establish that a person is 'engaged in the business.’"
Gun rights activists criticized the apparent reversal in policy. Larry Keane, the lead counsel for the National Shooting Sports Foundation, described the change as a "flip-flop" and said he was perplexed by it. "Back in the 90’s, [those opposed to gun rights] wanted to reduce the number of so-called 'kitchen table dealers' … which the Clintons told ATF to do and which they did," he told the Washington Free Beacon. "Now [they] say there are not enough licensed dealers."
"Wish they would make up their minds," he said.