Welcome to the very first members’ newsletter! I want to take a moment to introduce myself and thank you for your support. My name is Stephen Gutowski, and I’m an award-winning journalist who has covered gun policy and politics for the past decade. I try to use my knowledge as a certified firearms instructor and gun owner to inform my reporting to explain stories in a way most media cannot.
With your help, I plan to make The Reload the premier publication for sober, serious firearms reporting and analysis. The Reload is independent and reader-funded. That means the only people I am answerable to are you guys. With your help and support, I hope to bring facts-first firearms journalism to as many people as possible. To tell untold stories and better inform the public on an issue that affects nearly every American in one way or another.
I’m not a rich guy. I’m launching The Reload with just the money I’ve been able to save up during the last year. I’m betting enough people want reporting like this to make it viable. If launch week is any indication, I may be right. We’ve had thousands of signups for the free newsletter and over 200 paid subscribers so far.
I’m incredibly grateful for your support (especially from my fellow Co-Founders), and I’m encouraged to push forward!
To that end, let’s talk about what happened this week in guns.
What the Leaked ATF ‘Ghost Guns’ Document Means
On Tuesday, I published a leaked draft of the ATF’s plan to deal with so-called ghost guns. President Biden ordered the DOJ to come up with a proposal to deal with unfinished and unserialized firearms receivers earlier this month. Now, we have an idea of what that will look like, and it’s quintessentially ATF: expand its authority as much as possible to draw a line it is comfortable trying to enforce that lies well within the broadest possible reading of that authority.
The ATF wants to redefine what constitutes the receiver or frame of a firearm, the part that manufacturers need a license to make and that they must serialize, to fix two problems. The first is that federal courts have begun to challenge ATF’s decades-long application of the current definition to AR-15 receivers. The current definition requires several components, such as the trigger mechanism and breach block, to be present for the part to be a receiver. The problem is the AR-15 design (and many others, for that matter) splits these components into several different parts.
The ATF appears very annoyed that federal judges have started to notice that its application of the definition, which it uses to lock people in prison, doesn’t actually match the definition. So, it passive-aggressively proposes changing the definition to require only one component to be present. This, of course, means many firearms could then be considered to have more than one receiver.
But the ATF says it doesn’t intend to change any of its long-standing determinations about which parts of the AR-15 or other guns are receivers. Instead, it will use its broader authority to continue what it is already doing.
To take care of unfinished receivers, the ATF proposes defining anything that is “readily” convertible into a receiver as though it is a finished receiver. Anyone making and selling unfinished receivers, especially as part of a kit with the tools and parts necessary to finish the part and build a working gun, would have to get a federal license and mark them with serial numbers. Anyone buying them would have to pass a background check.
So, what does “readily” convertible mean exactly? Well, the ATF doesn’t say. It alludes to subjective standards around how long it takes to finish the receiver, what kind of tools it requires, and how much expertise is needed. It points to several cases as examples of what the standard could mean. One involved eight hours of work using a fully equipped machine shop.
If they apply that standard to AR-15 lowers, it really offers no limit at all to what could be considered a “receiver” requiring serialization and all the rest. It isn’t unthinkable to go from a rough block of metal to a finished receiver in under eight hours with the right equipment. It’s hard to think of a limiting principle under the definition proposed by the ATF.
But when discussing what it expects the impact of the change to be, the ATF said it will be minimal in practice because makers of unfinished receivers can either get a license or simply start selling the unfinished receivers separately from the tools and parts needed to turn them into finished guns. That would be more or less in line with the policy the ATF is already pursuing on those kinds of kits. It has even raided a major manufacturer of unfinished receivers in recent months.
These moves are similar to what the ATF does in other areas. It often seeks broad authority but doesn’t actually expend the monumental resources required to enforce everything up to the limit of that authority.
Last fall, the ATF proposed a guidance on AR-15 pistol braces (the other item President Biden is targeting for a ban with his latest executive actions) that would have solidified the subjective standards it’s been using to determine the legality of such braces. Instead of offering up length or weight measurements, the ATF offered up standards based on whether the gun with a brace could be operated with one hand or whether its marketing was too similar to a gun with a rifle stock. Essentially, ATF officials cast doubt on the legality of the tens of millions of braced guns already owned by Americans and said they would only judge a gun’s legality on a case-by-case basis after direct examination—a service they don’t offer the general public.
But the ATF didn’t offer up any plan for new enforcement of its guidance. It was more of a formalization of how the bureau was already operating: issuing confusing and often conflicting letters approving one brace while denying another one without any clear reason for the difference.
The same pattern can be seen with how the ATF determines whether or not someone is “in the business” dealing guns and needs to be licensed. There’s no objective standard for that either. Instead, it’s another subjective standard relating to how many guns a person sells per year, if and how they advertise, or if they turn a profit on the sales.
The ATF has said selling even one gun could require a license. Of course, it seldom actually tries to enforce that standard in real life.
So, yeah, the leaked proposal is quintessentially ATF. Broad power, more limited enforcement, and lots of legal gray area that leaves millions of Americans in limbo.
The ATF is often in a difficult position. It is already mistrusted by many gun owners and the industry it regulates. Interpreting and enforcing federal law, especially laws written decades ago, is difficult, but it’s important to understand how broad authority that’s inconsistently applied affects people and creates that mistrust.
What’s Coming in the NRA Bankruptcy
On Monday, I broke news of an emergency board meeting to discuss the NRA’s bankruptcy and the group’s plan for reorganization. That piece went over some of the biggest revelations to come out of the trial thus far, including the fact that the group didn’t discipline Wayne LaPierre or his longtime assistant Millie Hallow for diverting members’ money for their own personal expenses. In addition, former CFO Craig Spray said he didn’t know anything about the bankruptcy ahead of time and LaPierre fired him after he declined to sign the group’s latest tax filing over concerns about its accuracy. Woody Phillips, the CFO before Spray, also pleaded the Fifth dozens of times in his deposition.
Beyond that, I wanted to update you on the hearings that took place this week and where this is all headed. The NRA started offering its case this week, and outside of the embarrassing revelations, much of what is happening in the case is repetitive. At this point, each side’s case is pretty clear.
NRA leadership argues the group needs bankruptcy to avoid political persecution from New York officials, including Attorney General Letitia James (D.), who wants to shut the group down. The NRA says the group did have lapses in governance and financial management troubles, but it self-corrected and should be able to keep its current leadership to carry out the rest of the bankruptcy process. The NRA says LaPierre himself is indispensable to the group’s operation and fundraising, and it simply can’t lose him.
On the other side, Letitia James argues the NRA is hopelessly corrupt, and the bankruptcy is just a ploy to escape her prosecution in New York state court. She says LaPierre hiding the bankruptcy from the board, CFO, and other top executives combined with the fact that the group is financially stable is sufficient proof the case was filed in bad faith and should be dismissed. Or, if not dismissed, a trustee should be appointed to take over while the group goes through bankruptcy.
NRA board members Phillip Journey, Rocky Marshall, and Owen “Buzz” Mills offer something of a third-way option. They’ve filed a motion to have a court-appointed examiner go through the NRA’s finances and then make a report to a committee made up of NRA members to help them reform the organization.
The trial has dragged on well beyond what was initially scheduled. But, in a matter of weeks, Judge Harlan Hale will have to make his ruling, and the largest gun group in the country could look very different than it does today depending on what he decides to do. He has repeatedly said he considers this to be the most important case of his career. He’s right.
Is the Drop in Gun Control Support Because of New Shooters?
On Thursday, I wrote about a new Pew Research poll that showed a 7-point drop in support for stricter gun laws. That’s despite the poll being conducted in the direct aftermath of several high-profile mass shootings—events that usually cause support for gun control to rise.
I wrote a members-only piece with my analysis of why that might be. The most intriguing explanation is new gun owners. The National Shooting Sports Foundation estimated there were 8.4 million first-time buyers last year. This year has already seen the strongest first quarter for gun sales in history.
Polling has long shown gun owners are less likely to support stricter gun laws than non-owners, so it stands to reason these new gun owners may be changing their minds. It’s unlikely this will be a sudden change for most of these folks, but it will likely happen for many. And, more interesting than whether they start answering poll questions differently is whether they start voting differently. And how many will go further than that and start engaging in gun-rights activism?
Scott Kane of Asian American Pacific Islander Gun Owners (AAPI) is a good example of this phenomenon in action. Before the pandemic, he had never owned a gun. But after his wife and daughter were subject to racist harassment and chaos from the virus set in, he purchased his first gun. Or, at least, he tried to. After getting caught up in California’s strict gun laws and the bureaucratic collapse that came with COVID lockdowns, a process that should’ve taken Kane 10 days took almost two months.
After he got his first gun, a second wasn’t far behind. Then his friends began asking him to take them to the range and help them look at getting their first guns. Soon, he was his friends’ gun guy.
The experience made Kane, who previously supported stricter gun laws and AR-15 bans, reevaluate his opinions. He even considered running for office. Instead, he decided to help start a new gun group for an underserved demographic: Asian Americans.
How many other Scott Kanes are out there right now? How many new gun owners will follow his path eventually, even if it takes years to get there? Time will tell, but even a small percentage of new shooters becoming dedicated political activists could reshape the political landscape for years to come.
My Range Trip and the Ammo Shortage
This weekend I visited my local gun shop and then my local range to get some trigger time in with my Springfield XDS and to look at the Sig Sauer P365 XL, since I’m considering switching. The XDS was as reliable and accurate as ever, so maybe I won’t switch? I don’t know.
What I do know is the ammo shortage isn’t getting any better. In fact, it may be getting worse. My local gun shop didn’t have any 9mm for sale, which has become the norm since demand began to skyrocket last year and just never came back down. But now, my range doesn’t even have any 9mm to sell to people renting out their lanes! I’ve never seen that before. Ever.
So, I ended up having to use up some of my own dwindling 9mm stockpile. The rounds I shot have a gold-colored coating but, with ammo prices continuing to soar, they might as well be made out of actual gold. But, hey, it was still fun, and I was able to shake off the rust and get some nice groupings.
Speaking of range trips, there are only 7 Co-Founders memberships left for sale. After the first 10 slots sold out on Day One, I added another 10, but those are now selling out quickly too. I want to be able to spend a good amount of time personally shooting and talking with each Co-Founder during our upcoming all-inclusive trip to Bull Run Shooting Center in Manassas, Va., on June 12. So, there won’t be any more slots after these lifetime memberships are gone.