Waiting on a federal firearms license to open your gun shop? Got an application pending to transfer a machine gun? You’re out of luck until the government shutdown ends, after which you’ll be at the mercy of a lengthy backlog.
During the current partial government shutdown the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) is operating on a limited basis, like many other federal agencies. And there’s no end in sight: President Donald Trump and Democrats seem far from any compromise over the president’s demand for border wall funding and Trump has said he’s willing to let the shutdown last for years, if necessary.
The ATF is keeping essential staff on the job, including agents in the field and industry operations investigators, the investigators who ensure gun shops are complying with the law.Staff who analyze data for criminal investigations are also not affected.
Most firearms dealers are required to obtain a federal firearm license. The ATF is accepting new applications for these licenses. However, the bureau will not be processing the applications during the shutdown. So new gun stores are on hold. In 2017, there were between 1,300 and 2,200 pending applications a month.
Dealers who applied to renew their federal firearms licenses by their deadline can legally operate on their expired licenses while they wait for a decision, but their renewals will not be processed until resolution of the shutdown, according to the ATF.
Anyone waiting on approval to transfer firearms like machine guns, short-barreled rifles, and other weapons regulated by the National Firearms Act faces the same delay. The already long process will be longer by at least the duration of the shutdown.
You can still buy a gun from a licensed dealer – and no, you can’t get around the background check – the National Instant Criminal Background Check System is operating, according to the FBI, which runs the system.
Just like the long partial government shutdown 24 years ago, none of the federal employees going without pay know how long they will be missing paychecks and no one is guaranteed backpay, though the government has facilitated that in the past.
Former ATF agent Howard Wolfe, who served 30 years in the bureau, was an area supervisor during the 1995 shutdown. He said shutdowns not only pummel worker morale, but that the backlog of inspections that pile up during the shutdown can present hazards well after the government reopens.
“They’re going to be trying to catch up to the backlog as quickly as they can and that may mean they take a couple of shortcuts, not trying to miss something but saying, ‘OK, can we take a little shortcut and get this done quicker?'” he said. “And if that happens, they may miss something.”
Guns & America is a public media reporting project on the role of guns in American life.