Gun store owners in states along the U.S.-Mexico border sued the acting director of the federal agency that oversees firearms to halt a new requirement that they alert authorities if someone buys multiple high-powered rifles in a five-day span.
The requirement, which goes into effect Aug. 14, follows a controversial 2009 law enforcement operation in Arizona known as "Fast and Furious" that resulted in more than 2,000 high-powered weapons making their way to Mexico as authorities went after people directing gun buys on behalf of cartels.
The operation has been the subject of recent congressional hearings in which the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives acknowledged making mistakes.
The ATF's new requirement for high-powered rifle buys applies to California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas. It stipulates that gun shop owners must start providing the agency with detailed information, including birth dates, addresses, race and gender, about people who buy two or more semi-automatic rifles greater than .22 calibers in a five-day period.
In the three lawsuits filed Wednesday and Thursday against ATF Acting Director Kenneth Melson, store owners in Arizona, New Mexico and Texas argued the ATF does not have the right to make the requirement because it would hurt the businesses economically and invade the privacy of customers.
ATF spokesman Drew Wade said Friday that his agency will vigorously defend its authority to collect information from gun store owners.
He cited the Gun Control Act, saying it provides ATF with that authority. He also said courts have consistently upheld the law.
"The point of this request is to provide a targeted approach to address the problem of illegal gun trafficking through sales to `straw purchasers,' people who claim to be the true buyers of firearms but in reality are purchasing firearms on behalf of others," he read from a prepared statement.
The lawsuits were filed in Washington, Texas and New Mexico and are being funded by the National Rifle Association. The suits do not seek money, only a stop to ATF enforcement of the new requirement.
"We think the whole premise is ludicrous," NRA spokesman Andrew Arulanandam said about the regulation. "What they're trying to tell the American public is that $40 billion-dollar transnational criminal enterprises will somehow miraculously follow their paperwork rules and that's going to solve some problems."
Arulanandam sees the new requirement as a smoke screen to take away attention from the "Fast and Furious" program. Of the 2,000 guns that got into Mexico, only about one-fourth have been recovered, meaning the rest could still in the hands of drug smugglers.
Two of the recovered guns were found at the scene where Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry was shot to death in southern Arizona on Dec. 14, although it's still unclear whether the fatal bullet came from one of those weapons or another gun.
Terry and three other agents exchanged gunfire with a crew of border outlaws. Officials have said one person has been charged with Terry's killing; the rest escaped to Mexico. The case was later sealed.
Ben Suissa, owner of Foothills Firearms in Yuma, is one of the two Arizona gun store owners suing Melson over the new requirement involving high-powered rifles. The other store is J & G Sales in Prescott.
"This is a constitutional battle against a government that seems to have no bounds," Suissa said. "I feel for the plight they're having down there (in Mexico), but blaming it on law-abiding gun shops is preposterous."
He said Congress needs to pass a law with the new requirement rather than the ATF issuing an order.
"It's blatantly illegal," he said. "They basically enacted their own policy and think they're not beholden to the Constitution or the laws of this nation. They're just enforcing stuff that they're making up on their own."
He said multiple purchases of high-powered rifles are a rarity for his store.
"And the average gun shop owner is going to spot something fishy and turn it down, anyway," he said.