A lot of ink has been spilled over how major media outlets get gun politics, legislation, and culture wrong, but it has an even more startling shortcoming: ignorance of gun laws to the point of literal criminality.
The most recent example comes from NBC News. On March 17th, they aired a report purporting to show how easy it is to obtain and build an unserialized gun. But in the process, reporter Vaughn Hillyard may have run afoul of state and federal law. Gun-rights groups have called for an investigation into Hillyard’s actions, and the ATF has responded to those calls.
The legal limbo Hillyard now faces results from ambiguity over what level of completion a handgun frame has to reach before the ATF considers it a firearm under federal gun laws. The unfinished frame Hillyard bought at a Pennsylvania gun show is not considered a firearm because key components necessary to make the gun fire when assembled are missing.
However, in recent years the ATF has based enforcement actions on the idea that an unfinished frame becomes a firearm when coupled with the tools necessary to finish it in what they call a “ghost gun” kit. The agency used that logic in a December 2020 raid on parts-maker Polymer80. It is also attempting to codify the kits-as-firearms formulation in a major rulemaking proposal that’s soon to be finalized.
Federal law generally requires all transfers of handguns between parties who live in different states to include a background check done by a licensed gun dealer. Since Hillyard lives in New York and transferred the unfinished pistol frame and tool kit to unidentified men in Pennsylvania, it may have been an illegal transfer. If so, that would be a federal felony carrying a potential punishment of up to 5 years in prison and a $5,000 fine.
If history is any guide, though, Hillyard doesn’t need to worry too much.
That’s because there’s a long history of reporters breaking the very gun laws they tried to prove are too loose. Many of them broke the law in ways more cut and dry than Hillyard’s situation, but none faced any charges.
In fact, this wasn’t the first time a reporter made a questionable handgun transfer across state lines. Producers from Katie Couric’s much-maligned 2016 documentary Guns Out appear to have illegally purchased handguns across state lines while attempting to demonstrate the act should be illegal.
Then there’s the case of CBS News reporter Paula Reid. She purchased an AR-15 from a store in Virginia in an attempt to make some sort of point about how quickly a gun can be bought. This case shared the same bizarre tactic of unnecessarily going undercover to make legal purchases that Hillyard used to buy his unfinished pistol frame. As with Hillyard, Reid put herself in legal limbo with what came after the purchase.
Despite telling the gun dealer she was buying the gun for herself, it turned out she purchased the rifle intending to give it away to somebody else after the segment aired. That means she likely lied on the background check when answering whether she was the actual buyer of the gun. The transaction could constitute a straw purchase, a federal felony, and the dealer she misled ended up reporting her to the ATF.
Of course, the list wouldn’t be complete without the most infamous example: David Gregory. During a 2012 episode of NBC’s Meet The Press, Gregory brought out a 30-round magazine while questioning NRA head Wayne LaPierre on why they shouldn’t be banned. The only problem was that they were banned in Washington, D.C., where the show was filmed.
Possession of a 30-round magazine in D.C. carries a punishment of up to a year in prison and a $1,000 fine. Police even wrote up an affidavit against Gregory. But he was never charged.
So, how does this keep happening?
It’s likely the same reason for many of the mistakes major media outlets make while covering guns: ignorance. These reporters seemingly didn’t understand the laws they appeared to have broken. It seems as though nobody at the outlets they did these reports for knew either.
Expertise in firearms policy is incredibly uncommon in major media. It’s not prioritized. It’s not valued.
While that may result in embarrassing factual errors or misleading reporting in most cases, sometimes it ends in legal trouble.