Senate Rejects Efforts to Protect Gun Records from Government Abuse

On Thursday, the Senate passed a four year extension of the so-called PATRIOT Act, but not until leaders of both parties pulled out all the stops to overcome Sen. Rand Paul’s effort to protect gun records from government abuse.  

Even the NY Times had to give the scrappy freshman Senator credit for the herculean task of getting his amendment to the floor at all, a feat such seasoned veterans like Pat Leahy were unable to accomplish.

Unfortunately, by an 85-10 vote, the Senate tabled Sen. Paul’s amendment, which would have protected gun purchaser information and other gun records from blanket searches by the government under the post 9/11 legislation. 

After promising in February that there will be “an opportunity for an extended period of time—a week at least—to offer amendments and do whatever people feel is appropriate on this bill,” Majority Leader Harry Reid instead spent the week going through parliamentary convolutions in order to prevent a vote on the Paul amendment. 

For its part, the Republican leadership resorted to mischaracterizing the Paul amendment and encouraged Republicans to vote against it by spreading misinformation and lies about how it would be implemented.

For instance, they claimed that had the FBI been investigating the 2009 Fort Hood shooter, and had the Paul amendment been in effect, authorities would not have had the necessary tools under the Patriot Act to conduct an investigation.  This claim serves only to highlight the many signals missed by authorities in that case dating back to 2005 and ignores the many tools the FBI has already at its disposal. 

Besides, the terrorism legislation was fully in force at the time of the Fort Hood shooting and did nothing to prevent it!  Clearly, regardless of party, the answer to every government inadequacy is always to grant it more power.

Republican leaders also claimed that there was no evidence that the PATRIOT Act has been abused on a “widespread” basis, either in general or with respect to the Second Amendment.

Given that all investigations are SECRET and it is a crime to disclose them, it is hypocritical to argue that we don’t know all the abuses.  But we do know that thousands of illegal phone records and other personal data on Americans were procured by the FBI under the Act.  And we know that the Obama administration is pushing to illegally seize 4473-type information through its illegal regulations on multiple semi-auto sales in the Southwest –- a demand which is being made under the rubric of “national security.”

The effort to register gun sales along the border just underscores how easily the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (BATFE) could use the excuse of “terrorism” to register gun sales across the entire country.

Opponents of the Paul amendment maintain that gun owners are protected under the PATRIOT Act because a request for gun records must be relevant to a terrorism investigation and must first be approved by the Director of the FBI or a select few high-ranking officials within the Justice Department.  But they ignore the fact that the standard of “relevance” is a low standard ripe for abuse, and it is not much of an assurance at all with an administration (like Obama’s) that is hostile to the Second Amendment.

Republicans and Democrats alike also complained that the Paul amendment would have made it harder for the protected gun records to be accessed in a terrorism investigation. 

But Sen. Paul’s amendment would have simply reaffirmed gun owner protections enacted in 1986 as part of the McClure-Volkmer Firearms Owners Protection Act, which spells out the purposes for which gun records can be obtained by a law enforcement agency; as part of a bona fide criminal investigation, a trace, or a routine annual inspection. 

Under McClure-Volkmer (or the Paul amendment) gun records could be accessed by law enforcement as part of a criminal [terrorism] investigation without a warrant through a grand jury subpoena. Ironically, it is easier to obtain gun records via a grand jury subpoena in a criminal investigation than it is through the much-debated Section 215 of the underlying law. 

Despite these facts and concerns over gun owner privacy, too many Senators were just unwilling to stand up for even the slightest check on federal power.  Sen. Paul fought the good fight for the better part of a week without, sadly, the help of many who claim to be gun rights supporters.

John Velleco is Director of Federal Affairs for Gun Owners of America, a grassroots lobbying organization with more than 300,000 members nationwide.