Answering questions in writing, Deborah Ferguson, an assistant U.S. attorney for Idaho who is pressing the ATF's case, says, "This dealer has failed to record the dispositions of firearms, failed to properly keep and record ATF Firearms Transactions Records (ATF Form 4473), failed to fill out multiple handgun sales forms, failed to properly record and adhere to the regulations involving the transfer of firearms under the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, and failed to comply with other critical laws and regulations regarding the distribution of firearms. … Close scrutiny of firearms traffic is undeniably of central importance to federal efforts to prevent violent crime and to assist the states in regulating the firearms traffic within their borders. Large interests are at stake, and inspection is a crucial part of the regulatory scheme, since it assures that weapons are distributed through regular channels and in a traceable manner and makes possible the prevention of sales to undesirable customers and the detection of the origin of particular firearms."
Zach Ragbourn, a spokesman for the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence in Washington, D.C., a group founded after then-White House press secretary James Brady was wounded in the attempt to assassinate Reagan, says: "It's not up to individual gun shops to decide which laws to follow."
Twin Falls has at least 26 licensed gun dealers, including pawnbrokers; many thousands of people in the area own guns and use them regularly for hunting and recreational target shooting. But the little theater didn't quite fill up for the premiere of The Gang.
Many gun owners — probably most — believe that some regulations are reasonable. That became apparent in gun news that broke on the day of the movie's premiere: In a rare bipartisan vote, the U.S. House of Representatives tried to close the loophole exposed by the Virginia Tech shootings, passing a bill to require all states to report mental illness court actions into the federal database for instant background checks. The bill, headed for consideration in the Senate, enjoys support even from the mighty NRA. But it has exposed a rift within the gun-rights movement: The super-hard-liners think even this small step is unconstitutional.
Some in the audience for The Gang make derisive remarks about the NRA being, well, unmanly. Insufficiently hard-charging. Collectively, a wuss. The movie does too, directly or indirectly, through interviews with producer Aaron Zelman, the bespectacled chief of Jews for the Preservation of Firearms Ownership, and Larry Pratt, the head of Gun Owners of America, a Washington, D.C.-area group that calls itself "the no-compromise gun lobby." The movie's narrator talks of "the halcyon days" of the 1950s and 1960s, when you could buy military weapons, "even cannons."
Zelman says, into the camera, "It is precisely the guns that are restricted (i.e., machine guns and cannons) that are most useful for resisting tyranny." He points out that there is no federal agency regulating freedoms of speech and religion. "Why do we regulate a (similar) constitutional right?" he asks.
Highlighting apparently authentic documents, The Gang reports that the ATF's terrible traits were on display at a staff retreat in Tennessee: While performing skits, drunken ATF agents defecated on stage and bit the heads off live snakes.
The movie — available for $29.95 in DVD format from the Jews for the Preservation of Firearms Ownership Web site — includes no substantial interviews with ATF staffers or gun-control groups and no acknowledgment that some gun dealers break major laws, allowing guns to fall into the hands of street criminals and even mass-murderers.
When the movie ends, Horsley stands at the front again to talk, and some in the audience pose questions and express anti-ATF sentiments. No one brings up the shooting spree that bloodied Moscow, Idaho, just three weeks earlier: Jason Kenneth Hamilton, a 36-year-old janitor who belonged to the Aryan Nations group, rapid-firing about 200 rounds from two military-style semiautomatic rifles, killed his wife, a city police officer and a church sexton, wounded two other cops and a college student, and then killed himself. The shooter had a criminal record in four states, but he'd been able to buy his guns — one by mail from an out-of-state dealer and one from a home-based Idaho dealer — and ammo because of looseness in the regulations.
The people in the audience must know of the incident, but apparently think the actions of an unbalanced shooter don't bear on their gun rights.
Horsley tells the crowd that the ATF is trying to bankrupt him with legal bills, so even if its case against him collapses, he'll be out of business. "They don't like their actions to be exposed — that's what's happening," he says. "I'm going to continue speaking out."
"We give them the rope to hang us with," says one audience member.
Another guy asks, "What CAN we do, short of having a standoff in the street, which some of us here are ready to do?" Horsley seems reluctant to talk about that kind of confrontation. Instead, he echoes the movie's demand that everyone should rise up and pressure Congress to abolish the ATF.
In a phone interview, Professor Burbick says the gun-rights movement began not only in reaction to gun laws, but also as a reflection of white men's anxiety about the civil rights movement. Right-wing politicians have deliberately exploited that anxiety, exaggerating the dangers of government power and of criminals who supposedly target every unarmed person, she says. "The gun has become a fetish — an emotional response to a changing America," she notes, "the idea that somehow, the social problems of the U.S. will be solved through private gun ownership and a lot more guns."
The night after the premiere, Horsley hosts a second showing of The Gang, and the little theater is packed this time, with some of the audience standing. In the audience the second night are the former head of the Twin Falls Chamber of Commerce and the vice president of a local bank. Judging by the rapt attention, favorable comments and head-nodding agreement exhibited by both nights' audiences, the movie could fill more seats in an extended run.
Ray Ring is Northern Rockies editor for High Country News.
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