It Looks Like Private FFL's Are a Thing Again

December 29th, 2016

Once upon a time, you could order a gun through the Sears catalog and have it mailed to your door.  Contrary to much of the political rhetoric you may have heard, that's no longer the case.  In fact, it hasn't been since 1968, when the Gun Control Act mandated the requirement for a Federal Firearms License (FFL) to transfer firearms.  Essentially, one had to acquire the license to "deal" in firearms, and the licensee would act as a gatekeeper between manufacturers and the general public.

Many collectors acquired the license and used it to transfer firearms to friends and other collectors.  That was, until Josh Sugarmann of the Violence Policy Center decided he didn't like that.  Among several of his odious initiatives, he successfully badgered the Clinton administration into wiping out non-profit, or "kitchen table," FFL's in the 1990's.  Since then, common wisdom was that the ATF would not issue a Type 1 FFL to anybody who was not "engaged in the business" of selling firearms for a profit.

Then it came up that Sugarmann himself has had an FFL for quite some time.  Let the hypocrisy sink in for a moment.

I filed an FOIA request to the ATF in 2010.  Then I did it again.  And again.  A few months back, I finally got someone at the Bureau who was interested in helping me.  The resulting document dump is here.  It's a bit large if you're on a slow connection.

The upshot is this:

  • The FFL was issued to the VPC
  • It was denied at first because they are a declared nonprofit, and not "in the business"  (Notice Sugarmann resubmitted the application and checked the box saying he did intend to make a profit.)
  • Sugarmann responded that he was a "firearms expert in design and manufacture," and that he needed the FFL for the "examination and publication of written material" on the subject.  He explicitly states, "no firearms or ammunition will be sold."
  • The ATF decided that was acceptable criteria, and the FFL was issued.  It continues to be routinely renewed.

Well, huh.

I reached out to the ATF and asked them how one gets a Type 1 FFL if he's not running a for-profit business.  This was the initial response:

Thank you for your recent inquiry to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF).  This is in response to your email, in which you inquired about whether a nonprofit organization may be issued a Federal firearms license (FFL) for the purpose of publication of research and whether there are any licensing exceptions that exist for nonprofit organizations who are not engaged in a firearms business.

There are no exceptions to the Gun Control Act of 1968 (GCA) allowing organizations who are not engaged in in the business to obtain a Federal firearm license (FFL).  We recommend that you obtain any firearm needed for your research from a local FFL.

There was a back-and-forth in which they dug their heels in on this and insisted that there was no exception.  I then brought the VPC FFL to their attention. Either they do this or they don't.

Then I got an email from a L. Babbie, Firearms Enforcement Specialist. Apparently, there is an exception.  It's ruling 73-19.  According to Mr. Babbie,

You may record “N/A” to that question [on making a profit] and attach a sheet of paper to explain the nonprofit nature of your business.  A local ATF Industry Operations Investigator (IOI) will call you to schedule a meeting after your application is received at the local ATF office.

So…if I say I need to receive and ship firearms from my home for research purposes, I can have my own FFL.  I suggest everyone with the interest and time to do so apply immediately and quote this exception.  If you write about guns for a blog, that's research.  If you know a manufacturer who wants you to test out their products, that's research.

If the ATF decides they don't like the situation, they can rescind the ruling, in which case it would be reasonable to expect Sugarmann's FFL will also be voided.  If they issue denials in an inconsistent manner, there's definite potential for an equal protection claim.

I regret that I don't have the time to pursue this as I'd like.  To be honest, getting a response at this late a date was something of a surprise.  I ask that anyone with interest in the matter pass it along to as many people as possible.  I have one attorney looking into it, but the ideal would be to flood the ATF with this in order to push a resolution.

I do find it deliciously ironic that the guy who killed kitchen-table FFL's might be the avenue through which we get them back.

Edit:  Nick Leghorn at TTAG has picked up on this, and there's more input on the Reddit thread here.

  1. Rob wrote, running Safari 602.1 on iOS 10.2

    Thank you for the info and write up! I will try to start the process ASAP.



    Comment on December 31, 2016 @ 12:48 pm

  2. Mike wrote, running Safari 602.1 on iOS 10.2

    Instead of applying for an FFL why not file form 13909 with the IRS since he has stated he was going to make a profit and possibly engage in legislation . Form 13909 is used to report charities that are not doing their exempt purposes

    Comment on January 9, 2017 @ 7:38 am

  3. Michael Z. Williamson wrote, running Google Chrome 58.0.3029.96 on Windows 7

    There are several local dealers to me who operate from home. Their volume is small.

    Comment on May 9, 2017 @ 12:05 pm

  4. We’ve lost one of The Tribe, and now I’m pissed…. – Coalition to Stop Vilifying Guns wrote, running WordPress 4.7.4

    […] though, Josh Sugarmann, who owns the 501(c)(3) Not-For-Profit VPC (Violence Policy Center) has an FFL. How did a not-for-profit get a firearms license that is ONLY supposed to be issued to legitimate […]

    Pingback on May 9, 2017 @ 2:26 pm

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