Abuses of the BATF

CATO Policy Analysis 109

From: lvc@cbnews.cb.att.com (Larry Cipriani)
Date: Sun, 10 Apr 1994 15:12:59 GMT

{{Copy of CATO Institute Policy Analysis No. 109, July 11, 1988, "TRUST THE PEOPLE: THE CASE AGAINST GUN CONTROL", by David B. Kopel.}}

"The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms has been particularly outrageous in its prosecutions. Sometimes the BATF's zeal to inflate its seizure count turns its agents into Keystone Kops. One year in Iowa, for example, the BATF hauled away an unregistered cannon from a public war memorial; in California it pried inoperable machine guns out of a museum's display.

In the early 1970s changes in the price of sugar made moonshining unprofitable. To justify its budget, the BATF had to find a new set of defendants. Small-scale gun dealers and collectors served perfectly. Often the bureau's tactics against them are petty and mean. After a defendant's acquittal, for example, agents may refuse to return his seized gun collection, even under court order. Valuable museum-quality antique arms may be damaged when in BATF custody. Part of the explanation for the refusal to return weapons after an acquittal may lie in BATF field offices using gun seizures to build their own arsenals.

The BATF's disregard for fair play harms more than just gun owners. BATF searches of gun dealers need not be based on probable cause, or any cause at all. The 1972 Supreme Court decision allowing these searches, United States v. Biswell, has since become a watershed in the weakening of the Constitution's probable cause requirement.

Lack of criminal intent does not shield a citizen from the BATF. In United States v. Thomas, the defendant found a 16-inch-long gun while horseback riding. Taking it to be an antique pistol, he pawned it. But it turned out to be short-barreled rifle, which should have been registered before selling. Although the prosecutor conceded that Thomas lacked criminal intent, he was convicted of a felony anyway. The Supreme Court's decision in United States v. Freed declared that criminal intent was not necessary for a conviction of violation of the Gun Control Act of 1968."


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