Gun Control Debate: The NRA Gets Its Day In Court — and It Loses Unanimously

The National Rifle Association (NRA) has failed in an attempt to block a new gun regulation introduced by President Obama in July 2011, which will require gun dealers in border states to report multiple sales of semi-automatic weapons. In a unanimous ruling on Friday, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit rejected the claim by the NRA that the requirement was nothing more than an underhanded attempt to introduce a register of gun sales, which the NRA is vehemently opposed to. As The Guardian's Ed Pilkington points out, the decision represents a "rare setback" for the organization in its relentless pushback against any new gun regulations.

Despite the setback, given the NRA's strong opposition to any new gun-control regulation, particularly anything that it sees as the creation of a gun registry and its increasing use of the courts to push back against gun control, the organization is unlikely to give up without a fight.

In a statement at the time, U.S. Deputy Attorney General James Cole said that the new regulation was needed to make it easier for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF) to "detect and disrupt the illegal weapons trafficking networks responsible for diverting firearms from lawful commerce to criminals," in particular to stem the flow of weapons to Mexican drug cartels. Under the rule, gun dealers in states that border Mexico, Arizona, California, New Mexico and Texas, are required to report any multiple-sales of semi automatic weapons to one person within a five-day period to the ATF, including information identifying the federal firearms licenses, the customer, and the firearm. The ATF wanted the regulation in order to help people who say they are just bulk buying weapons for themselves but then transfer them to criminals. The executive order was issued at a time when the ATF was under intense scrutiny for the botched Fast and Furious operation.

NRA Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre said at the time that the organization viewed the rule "as a blatant attempt by the Obama administration to pursue their gun-control agenda through backdoor rule making, and the N.R.A. will fight them every step of the way. There are three branches of government and separation of powers, and we believe they do not have the authority to do this." However, on Friday the three federal judges all rejected this claim and agreed that the Obama administration should be allowed to continue with implementation of the new rule.

Furthermore, the judges specifically rejected the NRA's argument that the rule would amount to the creation of a gun registry, saying that it "does not come close to creating a 'national firearms registry'" because it only applies to four states and only on a very limited basis. Under the rule, if there were no investigative leads arising from the information passed on to it after two years, the ATF would then delete it. Holders of federal firearms licences are already required to report multiple sales of handguns.

The setback for the NRA comes as the organization is increasingly moving to challenge gun control laws in the courts, with outgoing outgoing president David Keene saying recently that, "as we are likely to win most of the legislative battles in Congress, we will have to move to courts to undo the restrictions placed on gun owners' rights in New York, Connecticut, Maryland, and Colorado." The NRA still has the option of taking its case to the U.S. Supreme Court.

If there is already a requirement to report multiple sales of handguns, and the new rule is focused on alleviating the transfer of guns to a country plagued by violent drug wars, then it hardly seems like an unreasonable requirement that undermines Second Amendment rights. How many law-abiding citizens need to purchase more than one semi-automatic weapon within a five-day period anyway? 

While the NRA is unlikely to let this one go quietly, Pilkington argues that "the appeals court ruling amounts to a highly unusual and possibly significant defeat for the gun lobby that is likely to encourage campaigners for greater gun controls to redouble their efforts."