THE GUN CONTROL ACT OF 1968 AND THE BRADY ACT OF 1993
AN ANALYSIS OF THE CASE NRA VERSUS JANET RENO
THE LANGUAGE OF THE GUN CONTROL ACT OF 1968
To understand the impetus behind the Attorney General’s actions that led to NRA’s action against the Attorney General and the Department of Justice, we need to take a look at the Gun Control Act of 1968. What does it say? The Gun Control Act of 1968, as set forth in the United States Code, 18 USCS § 922(g) or (n), provides that certain individuals, including, inter alia, convicted felons; fugitives from justice; aliens who are in this Country illegally; persons who have been adjudicated mentally defectives or who have been committed to a mental institution; members of the military who had received dishonorable discharges; individuals who have been convicted of a misdemeanor of domestic violence; or those Americans who have renounced their citizenship; shall not be permitted to possess a firearm or ammunition or to transfer or otherwise transport firearms or ammunition in interstate commerce.
Ostensibly, in order to assist a federally licensed dealer in firearms in ascertaining whether an individual, who seeks to own and possess a firearm and/or ammunition, is permitted under State law or under the laws of the United States to do so, Congress enacted the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act of 1993. The Brady Act was subsumed into the broader Gun Control Act of 1968, becoming a critical component of the original Act, for antigun groups.
The Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act requires the Attorney General to establish a “national instant criminal background check system,” better known by the acronym, “NICS.” Three provisions of the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act, as set forth in 18 U.S.C. § 922(t)(2)(c), require the Justice Department to destroy records of those individuals – those American citizens – who are lawfully permitted, to possess firearms and ammunition under applicable federal law. The Brady Act, 18 U.S.C. § 922(t)(2)(c), does not, however, say anything about destruction of records of those individuals who are not permitted, under 18 U.S.C. § 922(g) or 18 U.S.C. § 922(n), or under State law, to possess firearms or ammunition.
The instant background check system is presented by the proponents of the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act of 1993, and, as mentioned by the Court in the Reno case, to be a mechanism to assist a lawful, federally licensed dealer in firearms in determining, essentially instantaneously, whether a prospective purchaser of a firearm or firearms and/or ammunition is lawfully permitted, under federal and/or State law, to possess firearms and ammunition. If so, the transfer of one or more firearms and/or ammunition for a firearm is to proceed. Otherwise, the transaction cannot lawfully proceed. But, the Brady Act, as enacted, does not permit the Justice Department to create a backdoor gun registry program. Yet, this is precisely what the Justice Department would be doing if the Justice Department were to maintain NICS records on a firearms or ammunition transaction of a person who is lawfully permitted to own firearms and ammunition, after an NICS check of the prospective buyer of firearms or ammunition demonstrates that the purchaser is under no disability that would otherwise forbid the transaction from proceeding.
But, what does 18 U.S.C. § 922(t)(2)(c) actually say about the retention or the destruction of NICS records as to those citizens who are lawfully permitted to possess a firearm. In pertinent part, the Statute says just this:
“If receipt of a firearm would not violate section 18 USCS § 922(g) or (n) or State law, the system shall –
(A) assign a unique identification number to the transfer;
(B) provide the licensee with the number; and
(C) destroy all records of the system with respect to the call (other than the identifying number and the date the number was assigned) and all records of the system relating to the person or the transfer.”
THE LEGAL ISSUE
The paramount legal issue in the Reno case is directed to the meaning of the third requirement of 18 U.S.C. § 922(t)(2)(c) as set forth in 18 U.S.C. § 922(t)(2)(c)(C): namely, whether the Statutory section in question, paragraph “C,” prohibits the temporary retention of NICS records after the seller has conducted the NICS gun background check and has determined that the prospective buyer of a firearm and/or ammunition is not under disability that would otherwise preclude the transfer of the firearm or ammunition from going forward. Specifically, the question is whether the clause, “destroy all records of the system with respect to the call (other than the identifying number and the date the number was assigned) and all records of the system relating to the person or the transfer,” means “destroy immediately.”
NRA argues that, in the context of the Statute, the defining clause, “destroy all records of the system with respect to the call” means “destroy immediately.” What NRA is saying is that the meaning of the Statute is simple, straightforward and unambiguous; that the unambiguous meaning of the Statute, as enacted, reflects the clear, categorical, and unequivocal intention of Congress; and, lastly, that since the meaning of the Statute is unambiguous on its face, there is no need to investigate the intention of Congress further.
But, the Justice Department disagreed with NRA’s interpretation of the phrase, ‘destroy all records.’ And the Justice Department’s disagreement is exemplified in the rule the Department promulgated to effectuate what the Department understood to be the intention of Congress when Congress enacted the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act of 1993. That is to say, the Justice Department created an “audit log.” This audit log contains details of gun purchases. Specific information relating to gun purchases and the manner for retention and the length of time of retention of specific information related to all prospective sales of guns or ammunition is codified in the Code of Federal Regulations, namely, 28 C.F.R. § 25.9.
Understandably, NRA is very concerned about the Justice Department’s creation of an audit log. For, the Statute, 18 U.S.C. § 922(t)(2)(c), does not speak of an “audit log.” It does not exist in the Congressional Act itself. It is, rather, a creature of the administrative regulations promulgated by the Justice Department to give efficacy to Congressional Legislation — as the Justice Department happens to interpret that legislation. The creation of an “audit log” originated with the Justice Department. And therein is the rub. Was this necessary? Does the creation of an audit log and rules for retention of firearms’ and ammunition transactions a reasonable interpretation of Federal Statute? That is to say, is the creation of an audit log and rules for retention of firearms and ammunition transactions by the Justice Department consistent with Congressional intention?
The Justice Department believes so. But NRA argues, understandably, that the existence of an audit log amounts to a backdoor registry – something the Justice Department insists that the audit log isn’t. The Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act specifically prohibits the creation of a firearms’ registry. As dissenting Judge Sentelle said, “The Brady Act contains an express provision headed ‘Prohibition Relating to Establishment of Registration Systems with Respect to Firearms.’ Pub. L. No. 103-159, Sec. 103(i), 107 Stat. at 1542.” The Section provides that “No Department, agency, officer, or employee of the United States may require that any record or portion thereof generated by the system established under this section be recorded at or transferred to a facility owned, managed, or controlled by the United States or any State or political subdivision thereof.” Presumably, Senate and House Republicans would not have voted for the Brady Act had the Act specifically included or even allowed for the creation of such a federal firearms’ registry.
WHAT IS THE JUSTICE DEPARTMENT’S AUDIT LOG?
As a Department of Government, the Justice Department is tasked with promulgating rules to implement NICS. The Justice Department’s rules for NICS are set forth in the Code of Federal Regulations, 28 C.F.R. § 25.6. This rule establishes the “Audit Log.” NRA contends, quite reasonably, that the “Audit Log” is itself a form of registration because the Justice Department is retaining records of a request to purchase a firearm and/or ammunition even if the information that the Justice Department is retaining does not specify the type or kind of weapon and/or ammunition purchased or, for that matter, whether the sales transaction was even completed. In particular the Justice Department creates a tracking number assigned to all firearms’ transactions. This tracking number is referred to as an “NTN.” 28 C.F.R. § 25.2 says this about the NTN: “NTN (NICS Transaction Number) means the unique number that will be assigned to each valid background check inquiry received by the NICS. Its primary purpose will be to provide a means of associating inquiries to the NICS with the responses provided by the NICS to the FFLs.” The audit log also includes a list of names of individuals who are approved to purchase firearms.
Judges Tatel and Garland, arguing for the majority of the Court, curiously admit that the Justice Department’s Audit Log could in fact “function as a firearm registry,” which is patently illegal, but then dismiss the very point they make, by asserting that the Audit Log would not be a useful registry because of deficiencies in the system. Are the Judges then implying that the audit log is a firearms’ registry but that, as a registry, Congress and the American people should accept it, and not be concerned about it, because the audit log is not a very good registry? Does this not demonstrate a flaw in the Judges’ reasoning – bad enough for Judge Tatel, but altogether unacceptable for Judge Garland who would, if President Obama had his way, be headed for a seat on the high Court?
Judges Tatel and Garland also assert that, even if the Justice Department does keep specific information of firearms’ transactions of those citizens who are permitted lawfully to possess firearms, the audit log data of permitted firearms’ transactions is purged after six months; the data isn’t retained indefinitely. So, the question comes down to whether the language of the Brady Act authorizes the Justice Department to keep data, for any length of time, on individuals who are lawfully permitted to possess firearms. Once again, Judges Tatel and Garland are suggesting that keeping records for six months is no big deal. But is it a big deal? It certainly is a big deal if the intention of Congress when it enacted 18 U.S.C. § 922(t)(2)(c) of the Brady Act intended for the Justice Department never to retain records of gun or ammunition transactions that are authorized to go through which means, as NRA rationally argues that the Justice Department is required to destroy those transaction records immediately.
The NRA contends, justifiably, that the Justice Department’s audit log rule is patently illegal and that the Brady Act does not permit the Justice Department to keep records for any length of time. Dissenting Judge Sentelle agreed, pointing out that for the Justice Department to promulgate rules specifying retention of records for any length of time amounts to a gross misuse of executive power.
Judge Garland, though, agreeing with both the decision and reasoning of Judge Tatel who wrote the opinion for the majority in the Reno case does not see a problem, arising to Constitutional dimensions with the Executive Branch’s Justice Department intruding upon the exclusive province of the Legislative Branch of Government. This requires us to ask whether Judge Garland, sitting on the United States Supreme Court, as Justice Garland, would himself utilize the third Branch of Government, the Judicial Branch, not merely to interpret the law but to make law, and, hence, actively use the power of the Judiciary not to preserve and strengthen the Bill of Rights but to weaken, allowing the Executive Branch of Government to usurp ever more powers unto itself at the expense of the People.
In the next few articles we will continue our criticism of the majority opinion in the Reno case pointing to further flaws in the reasoning of Judges Tatel and Garland.Copyright © 2015 Roger J Katz (Towne Criour), Stephen L. D’Andrilli (Publius) All Rights Reserved.