Republicans assail race disclosures in gun purchases

Republicans assail race disclosures in gun purchases
© Greg Nash

Gun rights advocates in Congress are up in arms over federally mandated racial disclosures in gun purchases.

Republican lawmakers are seeking to roll back a controversial Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) policy that requires people to indicate their race and ethnicity when buying a gun.

The Freedom from Intrusive Regulatory Enforcement of Arbitrary Registration Mandates (FIREARM) Act reintroduced this week by Reps. Diane BlackDiane Lynn BlackBudget chairman Womack eyes appropriations switch Black: Corker should ‘just sit back and be quiet’ GOP lawmaker, candidate for governor cancels NFL season tickets over protests MORE (R-Tenn.) and Ted PoeLloyd (Ted) Theodore PoeHillicon Valley: House Dems release Russia-linked Facebook ads | Bill would block feds from mandating encryption 'back doors' | AT&T hired Cohen for advice on Time Warner merger | FCC hands down record robocall fine | White House launches AI panel Lawmakers move to block government from ordering digital ‘back doors’ May brings key primaries across nation MORE (R-Texas) would prohibit the ATF from asking questions about race and ethnicity in gun applications.

“Why does it make a difference what my race is, as long as I’m a law-abiding citizen?” asked Black, in an interview with The Hill. “The government should be color blind on all of our rights, whether it’s the right to religion, or guns, or freedom of speech.”

The National Rifle Association and Gun Owners of American are both backing the Republican legislation to stop the ATF from inquiring about the race and ethnicity of gun owners.

“Am I accusing the ATF of racism?” said Michael Hammond, legislative counsel at Gun Owners of America. “You’re absolutely right I am.”

But the ATF defends the policy as a better means to capture criminals.

“This information can be helpful when tracing firearms used in crimes, to ensure the correct identification of an original purchaser and avoid misidentifications,” ATF spokesman Corey Ray said.

Gun owners are required to fill out a six-page application known as Form 4473 when they purchase firearms.

The ATF uses the information to screen out criminals and other people who are not allowed to purchase firearms. The agency asks questions, such as, “Are you a fugitive from justice?” and “Are you an alien illegally in the United States?”

But it’s the two questions about the race and ethnicity of prospective gun owners that have raised eyebrows on Capitol Hill.

The race question asks whether gun owners are Black, Asian, American Indian, Hawaiian, or White, while the ethnicity question asks whether gun owners are Hispanic or Latino.

Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamGraham: Trump will 'end North Korea’s threat to the American homeland' in his first term Sunday shows preview: Lawmakers weigh in after Texas school shooting Kim Jong Un surprises with savvy power plays MORE (R-S.C.) told The Hill it is “absurd” the ATF would be asking questions about race and ethnicity.

“It could evidence some sort of racial bias,” Sen. Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsStopping Robert Mueller to protect us all Chris Christie compares Mueller investigation to 'Bridgegate' probe Oakland mayor fires back at Trump: ‘It’s my duty to protect my residents’ MORE (R-Ala.) said. “We should conduct the public’s business in a race-neutral way.”

“This is yet another instance of the Obama administration looking to use its executive powers to impede law-abiding citizens from exercising their Second Amendment rights,” NRA spokeswoman Jennifer Baker said.

The ATF has been collecting this information about the race of gun owners since 1968, though the agency maintains it has never compiled it in any sort of database.

Rather, the ATF requires gun dealers to keep the information on file only to be used in situations like crime investigations. Shops that fail to collect this information could be shut down by the agency, the lawmakers say.

“ATF does not, and never has, maintained an archive or other information repository on the race or ethnicity of firearms purchasers or licensees, and has no intention to do so in the future,” Ray said.

More recently, the ATF tweaked the form in April 2012 to ask two separate questions about the race and ethnicity of prospective gun owners.

Sen. Roy BluntRoy Dean BluntGOP, Dem lawmakers come together for McCain documentary The Hill's 12:30 Report The Hill's 12:30 Report MORE spotted the change last fall and questioned whether the ATF uses the information about a gun owner's race to block that person from purchasing a firearm.

“The constitutional right of a citizen to own a firearm has nothing to do with race or ethnicity,” Blunt wrote in a letter to then-ATF Director Todd Jones. “It is disconcerting that the U.S. government is gathering this type of data on citizens when there is no connection between purchasing a firearm and an individual’s race or ethnicity."

A Democratic member of the Congressional Black Caucus hadn’t yet reviewed the bill, but said that the use of race and ethnic data should be limited in scope.

“There is a limited place for race and ethnic data in situations that don’t infringe on the rights of law-abiding citizens, like ensuring that individuals are who they purport to be when undergoing a background check to purchase a firearm,” Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) told The Hill.

But Republicans question why the ATF would need information about a gun owner’s race to decide whether that person qualifies for a firearm.

“It shouldn’t be that you have to distinguish your race to get a gun,” Black said. “They admit they are not doing anything with this information, so why collect it?”

— This story was updated on April 20 to clarify Sen. Booker's position on the Republican bill.