House members are lining up to make statements opposing the new regulations. Critical comments continue to pour in - more than 140,000 letters so far - to the rulemakers. An angry congressional subcommittee already has cut off funding.
That's what happens when the National Rifle Association decides a new set of Treasury Department firearms regulations are the first step toward gun registration.
Officials of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (BATF) say the rules are aimed simply at making it easier to trace guns used in crimes and to pinpoint illegal traffickers.
They emphasize that there are no provisions to computerize the names and addresses of individual gun owners.
But the massive lobbying campaign mounted by NRA and is allies has administration officials clearly on the defensive.
Rep. John Ashbrock (R-Ohio), ranking minority member of the House Judicary subcommittee on crime, is expected to continue the assault at a hearing this morning. At a previous hearing Ashbrook insisted that Treasury representatives be put under oath and then called them liars.
Richard J. Davis, assistant treasury secretary for enforcement, and Rex Davis, head of BATF. have been the chief targets of the criticism. In a recent "legislative alert" to members, NRA lobbyist Neal Knox warned that the administration officials were trying to "end run" Congress with regulations that overstepped legal authority.
Knox said in a recent phone interview that his group views the regulations as a substitute for the administration's yet-to-be-introduced handgun control bill.
NRA also questions Treasury estimates of the cost of implementing the new rules, which would require quarterly reports of all gun sales, unique 14-character serial numbers on each firearm, and immediate reports of thefts from dealers.
A House Appropriations subcommittee last month cut BATF's budget by $42 million, an amout euqal to the expected cost of putting the new rules into effect, and added language barring any spending at all for them.
A subcommittee aide said yesterday the members' main concern was that the regulations went beyond the intent of Congress.Proponents of the store the budget cut.
Meantime, the letters pile up in the office of Jim Hunt, of BATF's research and regulations branch. More than 150,000 comments had been received by the end of last week, running about 14 to 1 in opposition to the proposed rules, Hunt said.
Most responses, he said, obviously have been generated by organized lobbies on one side or the other of the gun control issue. Most writers in opposition talk about "gun grabs" and "registration." Most in favor applaud a first step toward "controlling" dangerous weapons.
A reporter's recent sampling of the BATF mail confirms the diversity and the vehemence of the comments.
One letter in opposition is addressed to Gestapo headquarters in Washington. Another includes a tea bag to symbolize popular discontent, as demonstrated by the Boston Tea Party.
An Ohio man who supports the regulations included a list of persons who shouldn't be allowed to have guns - among them the man at the local auto parts store who once pointed a pistol at a neighbor.
The comments also include more practical responses from police groups, which generally support the rules as aiding their fight against crime, and from importers, manufacturers and dealers, who most often complain about another layer of bureaucratic paperwork.
Richard Davis said in a recent interview that the outpouring of comment shows the power of which he termed NRA, "the original one-issue lobby." He said BATF will carefully consider reasonable suggestions for simplifying the proposals. But he insisted that present law gives Treasury all the authority it needs to draw up the regulations, without the additional congressional section NRA demands.
An unknown element is the effect of the current furor on the administration's plans for a handgun control bill. A draft bill was circulated last summer by the Justice Department, but is still sitting in the White House.
Some observers believe the recent NRA salvo has made the administration skittish. Others say Carter simply isn't ready to take on the potent gun lobby now. Said one official:
"He's got enough trouble with the Israelis."