NEW YORK – Attorney General John Ashcroft's cross-country campaign to drum up support for the USA Patriot Act may be an uphill hike as more and more innocent Americans feel the sting of the legislation's slap.
Since the passage of the anti-terrorism legislation in October 2001, Americans have been struggling to balance civil liberties with homeland safety. But the long arm of the act has swept everyone from toy rocketeers and scuba divers to hunters and avid readers into the scope of law enforcement. Many Americans are finding that even the most harmless hobbies have them tripping into national security concerns.
The most recent Patriot Act battle is being waged by toy-rocket enthusiasts over the inclusion of ammonium perchlorate composite propellant (APCP), a type of fuel which was put on an updated list of restricted explosives issued early this year by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
Under the Patriot Act, anyone coming into contact with the propellant must have first obtained a permit, have been fingerprinted and undergone a background check.
Also on the new list is black powder, the old form of gunpowder used in antique guns and other muzzle-loading weapons, which are used by millions of hunters as well as historical groups that stage re-enactments of battles from the Civil and Revolutionary Wars.
The permit requirement has not only thrown up barriers between enthusiasts and their hobbies, but has threatened to end access to restricted materials, since the new rules require permits for shipping companies to transport such items to dealers and retailers.
United Parcel Service spokesman Dan McMackin said subjecting the company's loaders and drivers to the government permitting process would place an onerous burden on it.
"There are certain classes of gunpowder that were not classified as explosives that now are," McMackin said. The new classifications and regulations have forced UPS to reduce the number of materials it will ship from 64 to 13.
The amateur-rocket community, no stranger to regulatory woes, filed a lawsuit against the government claiming that the BATF does not have the authority to regulate APCP because, they say, it is not an explosive.
"My hobby is not a terrorist threat," said Mark Bundick, president of the National Association of Rocketry (search). "A rocket cannot be turned into a weapon."
Rep. Mike Enzi, R-Wyo., in June introduced legislation in Congress that would exempt purchases of very small quantities of APCP, enough to satisfy most hobbyists, from the new regulations. Larger amounts of APCP would still be subject to restrictions.
Backed by Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, the bill had been expected to pass quickly and quietly. Instead, Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., joined Attorney General John Ashcroft and the Bush administration in opposing the exemption.
Schumer called the Enzi bill "legislative lunacy" that would "create a new loophole that lets terrorists and criminals accumulate large amounts of the same kinds of explosives that the Unabomber and other terrorists have used."
Bundick said Schumer and Lautenberg's assertions have "no basis in fact" and were based on faulty and inaccurate science.
Bundick said the government seemed to have been slow to enforce the new regulations, and that rockets had not been grounded. Many APCP dealers have been doing business as usual. But Bundick was concerned that local authorities would not be as lax as their federal counterparts.
"Many residential neighborhoods, the local fire marshals and authorities, are not going to let you store it," Bundick said.
As for black-powder restrictions, Gary Mahalik, president of the National Shooting Sports Foundation (search), said the shipment and storage of black powder had always been tightly regulated, so the impact on antique weapons hobbies remains to be seen.
Several gun and hunting groups contacted by Fox News, including the National Rifle Association (search), said they had not heard much about the issue from their members.
But the shipping issue is being watched closely. Extremely volatile, black powder can only be shipped and stored in very small quantities. Manufacturers cannot fill up trucks and deliver it themselves, and if they were unable to get shipments to retailers and customers, they could have a serious distribution problem.
"It [could be] a disaster for the muzzle-loading industry," said Frank Gahagan, president of the Hunting Society, Inc., (search) in Locust Valley, N.Y.
Hobbyists don't have to be involved with explosives or gunpowder to find themselves under scrutiny. Over Memorial Day weekend, the government, acting on reports that terrorists could be plotting an underwater attack, obtained the names of 2 million people who had recently taken scuba diving lessons from the Professional Association of Diving Instructors (search).
Mindful of the proprietary nature of their lists, PADI wanted to avoid a subpeona, said PADI Vice President Jeff Nadler. By providing the information voluntarily, PADI got the FBI to agree to terms limiting the use of the list, terms they felt the FBI had honored.
Nadler said PADI also feared that hysteria over a possible underwater attack would result in the same kind of regulations imposed on flight schools after the Sept. 11 attacks.
"We're a self-regulating industry. We didn't want a knee-jerk reaction and be facing runaway legislation regulating diving," Nadler said.
Some members did feel PADI should have compelled the government to subpoena the records. Such less-than-explicit pressure to cooperate poses the greatest threat the greatest threat to civil liberties, say critics.
"Going along to get along is not acceptable," said Bundick. "If we allow the government to create an environment of fear, well, that's not the kind of government we should have," he said.
Bookstore owners and librarians share that view. They want library and book purchase records exempted from Patriot Act provisions that let the government monitor such transactions through court orders that don't require informing the suspect.
The American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression (search), which represents independent bookstore owners, sued the Justice Department early this year under the Freedom of Information Act, seeking data on how many bookstores, record and instances had been examined by the government.
"We have no idea how often this is being done," said ABFFE president Chris Finan. "There is no public accountability for how often these records are being sought."
The ABFFE lost the FOIA suit in March when the judge ruled the government, in the interest of national security, did not have to turn over the information.
In the case of the scuba divers, Nadler said he welcomed the opportunity to educate law enforcement that recreational scuba diving training was not a threat to national security.
He said the courses offered by PADI would not enable someone to carry out underwater demolition. Yet the parallels with terrorists taking flying lessons at American flight schools could not be ignored.
"We try to take a middle-of-the-road approach in terms of cooperation [with the government] with an eye on the proprietary nature of the information," said Nadler.
Meanwhile, some members on Capitol Hill have been showing their sympathy toward hobbyists.
Introduced by Rep. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., the Freedom to Read Protection Act (search) would exempt bookstores and libraries from Patriot Act provisions. It has attracted 130 sponsors, including 16 Republicans.
Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., has introduced a similar bill in the Senate, and Sen. Russ Feingold has introduced a more limited bill that would allow the Justice Department only to get records of individuals suspected of espionage or terrorism.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, has introduced the Protecting the Rights of Individuals Act, a bill that would "place modest checks and balances on the most troublesome provisions of the USA Patriot Act."