Justice

Why Did The Department Of Justice Just Award A $2.4 Million Grant To The Gun Industry?

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The National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF) spends millions of dollars each year lobbying in support of gun and ammunition manufacturers and vendors and against expanded background checks, restrictions on semi-automatic purchases, and limits on high-capacity magazines.

But despite its virulent opposition to those key legislative pieces of the Obama administration’s efforts to reduce gun violence, the Department of Justice (DOJ) awarded a $2,446,888 grant late last month to the NSSF — the firearms industry’s trade association — to promote firearm safety and distribute free gun locks.

Gun safety advocates say that giving taxpayer funds to the industry’s principal lobbying group — a trade organization headquartered in Newtown, Connecticut, less than seven miles from the site of the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary mass shooting — amounts to a tacit endorsement of the industry and its tactics. The Newtown Action Alliance and Coalition to Stop Gun Violence have launched a petition demanding the grant be cancelled, saying any good done by the project “is vastly outweighed by the harm NSSF does in lobbying for reckless gun laws.”

Adding to the questions raised by this partnership, a 2012 letter obtained by ThinkProgress suggests that the DOJ’s recent history with NSSF has been marked by a contentious disagreement over the industry’s attempts to build support for its political action committee through their joint communications.

Project ChildSafe

For close to a decade, federal law has required that nearly all handguns sold by gun dealers, manufacturers, and importers include some sort of lockable safety device to keep them out of the hands of children. And between 2002 and 2009, the federal government gave tens of millions of dollars in grants to NSSF for them to manage and implement Project ChildSafe, a program designed to provide child safety locks and to educate gun owners about using them.

According to a DOJ mailer, “NSSF was chosen to implement Project ChildSafe because of its experience and expertise in providing gunlocks and safety education to firearm owners through Project HomeSafe, which NSSF launched in 1999 to promote safe handling and storage of firearms.” The grants ceased under President Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder, though it is unclear why.

But in late August of this year, the DOJ opted to revive the partnership — again for unclear reasons.

Po Murray, chairman of the anti-gun violence group Newtown Action Alliance, told ThinkProgress that she believes giving tax dollars to NSSF for this or any purpose is inappropriate. “One has to question whether this corporate gun lobby is the right group to push this initiative,” Murray said. She also suggested that the industry itself should be paying for gun safety locks, likening the grants to “asking the taxpayers to fund seatbelts.”

“I’m flabbergasted, given that the Obama administration has put a priority on gun violence prevention, that this administration would fund the corporate gun lobby,” Murray continued. “It’s mind boggling. NSSF has filed unsuccessful lawsuits in Connecticut, Colorado, and communities in California against gun ordinances. They have literally fought all and any gun safety legislation and laws. It doesn’t make sense and goes against the Obama administration’s goals and objectives.”

Don’t Lie For The Other Guy

While the $2.4 million for Project ChildSafe is the first Department of Justice grant awarded to NSSF by the Obama administration, it is not the first time the two entities have partnered. And their other major joint initiative did not go smoothly.

In an effort to combat illegal “straw man” purchases of firearms — a person buying a gun on behalf of another person who is legally prohibited from gun ownership — the DOJ’s Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) joined with NSSF in July 2000 on a campaign to discourage the practice. As part of this “Don’t Lie for the Other Guy” effort, ATF distributed packets of campaign materials to all new vendors receiving federal firearms licenses.

But the relationship became complicated in 2012, when ATF leadership discovered that NSSF was also including in the ATF-distributed packet an invitation to receive information about the NSSF’s own political action committee — a move that apparently put the agency’s staff on the wrong side of a law prohibiting most federal employees from assisting with political fundraising.

The NSSF’s PAC has distributed hundreds of thousands of dollars to pro-gun candidates, including dozens of the senators who in April 2013 helped filibuster to death the Manchin-Toomey proposal to require universal background checks.

In an October 9, 2012 letter, obtained by ThinkProgress under the Freedom of
Information Act, the acting chief of ATF’s public and governmental affairs liaison division wrote to NSSF’s senior vice president and general counsel to follow up on earlier phone conversations:

During this phone call you confirmed that the National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF) would continue to include a Political Action Committee (PAC) letter in the “Don’t Lie for the other Guy” Federal Firearms Licensee (FFL packet). Former AD Gant advised that ATF would cease to include the NSSF PAC letter in the FFL packet that ATF distributes …

While ATF is not opposed to the inclusion of NSSF membership applications in the FFL packets, ATF is unable to distribute FFL packets that contain the NSSF PAC letter. The Hatch Act, 5 U.S.C. §§ 7321-7326, specifically prohibits any Federal employee from using his or her official authority to affect the results of an election, assisting with political fundraising, or soliciting political activism from any person who seeks a ruling, license, or permit from (or is the subject of an audit or enforcement action by) a Federal employee’s employing agency.

In short, the NSSF was using federally-distributed packets to enlist donors for its PAC — funds that are then used to thwart gun legislation — and the ATF wanted it to stop.

The letter noted that NSSF had earlier said that it “does not consider the PAC letter to be a solicitation and would continue to include those letters in the FFL packets,” preferring to assemble and distribute them on its own. The acting chief concluded with a plea, “ATF wishes to continue its ongoing partnership with the NSSF in the context of the ‘Don’t Lie for the Other Guy’ program and requests that the NSSF discontinue the inclusion of the one-page NSSF PAC form from existing and future FFL packets.”

Mike Bazinet, public affairs director for NSSF, said in an email that the matter “was resolved” and that the PAC letter it had included in the packets (both when they were distributed by ATF and after NSSF took over) was nothing more than a “communication that seeks permission to send PAC information directly to company personnel, as required by federal election law.” Now, he explained, “we fund and distribute the Don’t Lie kits ourselves and send them to FFLs directly.” And, he added, since ATF no longer distributes the kits, they include the PAC information and other NSSF membership application.

Larry Noble, senior counsel at the non-partisan Campaign Legal Center, told ThinkProgress that the Hatch Act applies only to government employees, but violation of it can lead to suspension or even termination. “It’s problematic — a letter from the PAC going in government supported material,” he said, noting that the prohibition of “soliciting” has been broadly defined. Beyond the legal question, Noble added, even the idea of the government helping to distribute non-PAC materials encouraging NSSF membership would be inappropriate.

An ATF spokeswoman said in an email that “ATF no longer has involvement in the creation or distribution of packets distributed by NSSF to FFLs.” She did not respond to questions about why the NSSF’s DontLie.org website still features branding from both ATF and NSSF and a 2015 copyright date, but did note that the two entities partner on an anti-theft initiative and observed that “ATF regularly meets with various organizations in the firearms industry nationwide to educate them about the firearms laws and regulations, as well as enhance our relationship with the industry.”

A spokeswoman for the Department of Justice did not respond to questions about why NSSF was selected or whether the “Don’t Lie” experience was taken into account, but said in an email that the new $2.4 million grant was awarded “under a competitive solicitation.” She said that information about other applicants was “not available.”

Tacit Approval?

In their petition to stop the federal government grants to NSSF, the Newtown Action Alliance and the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence quote a March blog post in which NSSF’s senior vice president and general counsel Larry Keane denounced the Obama administration as “willing to try virtually anything to pursue its gun control agenda in defiance of Congress and existing law.”

“Whatever good might be done by Project ChildSafe is vastly outweighed by the harm NSSF does in lobbying for reckless gun laws,” the petition states. “No taxpayer in America should have to foot the bill for a profit-focused lobby looking to improve its public image.”

Chelsea Parsons, vice president for guns and crime policy at the Center for American Progress, echoed this concern. “It is disappointing that the Department of Justice would award such a substantial grant to an organization that has prioritized lobbying against common sense gun laws that would help close dangerous loopholes that allow high-risk people to have easy access to guns,” she said, adding that “awarding NSSF this grant represents a tacit approval of this organization’s persistent efforts to undermine the nation’s gun laws and lends it a level of legitimacy that is completely unwarranted and undeserved.” (Disclosure: ThinkProgress is an editorially independent site housed at the Center for American Progress.)

But the NSSF’s Bazinet said his organization was the right choice to implement the project: “The industry now provides locks with every new gun sold. The Project ChildSafe Locks are distributed through law enforcement partners nationwide (some 15,000 of them have been involved over the 15 years of the program) and help secure access to older firearms that are in the hands of citizens. This is a practical, on-the-ground safety program that also was funded by the previous administration. It is not political. We have produced an array of safety information over the years.”

Since the Newtown shootings, a small number of states have tightened their gun laws, but federal action has proved elusive. After opponents successfully filibustered action in the Senate in 2013, the House did not even consider gun legislation.

According to the Gun Violence Archive, at least 1,318 accidental shootings have already been verified in the United States this year alone.