What would normally have been a routine Senate Appropriations Committee on Commerce- Justice- Science (CJS) session yesterday may have given gun owners another insight into just how dedicated the BATFE is when it comes to tightening their access to 5.56 ammunition.
In his opening remarks, Alabama Senator Richard Shelby praised the work of those scheduled to testify- until he got to B. Todd Jones, Director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (BATFE).
There, Shelby summarized the BATFE's 2016 $1.3 billion budget request as a $60 million dollar increase over 2015, then flatly remarked: "I am interested in how the agency would use this increased funding, particularly in light of recent complaints from hunters and sportsmen who believe that ATF overstepped its authority by attempting to ban certain ammunition from recreational use."
"I look forward to hearing the views and explanations of our four witnesses (heads of the FBI, U.S. Marshals Service, DEA and BATFE) regarding the details of their 2016 funding goals, and working with our subcommittee members to prioritize necessary funding for federal law enforcement agencies in the 2016 bill."
As expected, the perfunctory answers from the remainder of the "witnesses" (the heads of the FBI, U.S. Marshals Service and the DEA) outlined the priorities of their missions, challenges, and detailed the uses for their requested budget hikes.
When Jones was questioned on what Shelby characterized as an "overreach" of authority by ATF earlier this week, he didn't retreat. Instead, Jones used the opportunity to tell Sen. Shelby's subcommittee that, because of the growth of AR-style pistols, he now considered "Any 5.56 round to be a challenge to officer safety."
He then asked lawmakers to help in a review of the 1986 bill written to protect officers from armor-piercing ("cop killer") rounds. That measure largely exempted 5.56 and a variety of other ammunition because it was used by target shooters and not in weapons readily used by criminals. Jones disagreed with the exemption because of the growth of the AR-style pistol.
He did not say an AR-style pistol had even been used against law enforcement, but he made it very clear that the matter of military surplus ammunition in 5.56 was far from closed. In fact, the characterized the status as "suspended" not withdrawn. There is a big difference.
During a White House press briefing, WH Press Secretary Josh Earnest declined to comment on a characterization that the President had "caved" on the ban. Instead, Earnest said the administration "deferred to the decision by the ATF to suspend action on the proposal".
Their comments should not cause gun owners concern, not give any confidence.
The administration, according to my sources, was both embarrassed and infuriated at the fact the proposed "framework" was outed by online news media.
After all, the ATF employed a longstanding tactic used releasing potentially controversial proposals: it was part of a "news dump" late on a Friday afternoon - preceding a federal holiday weekend. In Washington's mainstream media, that's the time when their "A-teams" are heading out for long weekends. And more often than not historically, it's worked. Even if discovered, it's difficult-if not impossible- to reach high-ranking officials for comment before the Tuesday news cycle. And nothing cools "hot news" faster than time.
If you're a follower of such practices, you'll remember it was the same tactic used when the White House released subpoenaed documents relating to the ATF's botched "Fast and Furious" and "Wide Receiver" investigations.
But the words of ATF's Jones and White House Press Secretary Earnest after their acknowledgement of the "suspension" are the the ones that should keep gun owners vigilant. As I wrote earlier, Jones candidly stated that - especially with the sales popularity of the AR-style pistol, he considered all 5.56 ammo a threat.
And Earnest refused to characterize the move as President Obama's "caving" on the issue of gun control, adding "the President remains committed to protecting Second Amendment Rights and seeing 'common sense' action taken."
That reiteration of the commitment to "common sense action" is where the true test really lies- and I've been told by sources in the administration that next test won't be long in coming.
While the administration backed off due to the objections of 90,000+ citizens, 52 Senators and 238 members of Congress, there's still no intent to let the matter rest.
The lesson learned from this latest defeat may be the administration's reaffirmation of the problems of allowing public comment instead of simply riding out the protests afterward.
And this administration has shown little reluctance to take unilateral action-especially if it meant being able to make life even more difficult for law-abiding gun owners.
Where the next anti-gun initiative will focus is anyone's guess at this point. That it is coming is a virtual certainty.
As always, we'll keep you posted.