It started in 1971 with a single raid. From that moment forward, gun rights advocates and the Division of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) began a lifelong affair plagued with distrust.

The authorities had received information from a burglary suspect that Kenyon Ballew, of Silver Spring, Maryland, had a stash of grenades and guns. With that single source of information, the ATF executed a search warrant, breaking down Mr. Ballew’s door. Mr. Ballew who was in the bathtub, heard his door being shattered, and immediately jumped up to grab an antique 1847 Colt revolver, not knowing who was breaking into his home. Agents shot and wounded him in the head, leaving him permanently disabled, though he was never charged with a single crime.

Ripping into the heart of the firearms community, the Arizona-based Firearms Coalition was run by Jeff Knox. His father, Neal, was extremely instrumental in helping turn the National Rifle Association (NRA) into a thriving political organization.

Following this event, more stories began to emerge – agents bursting through the front doors of law-abiding citizens and gun owners, for nothing more than technical gun ownership violations. While the ATF dismissed citizens’ outrage, a right wing section of the NRA began to emerge. Neal Knox became the chief lobbyist for the NRA in 1978, essentially declaring war on the ATF.

In 1978, the ATF requested funding for measures and computerization methods to increase gun tracing. The NRA in turn accused the ATF of building a secret national gun registry, taking arms in fighting the battle over the Second Amendment.

Today, now renamed the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, uses paper records and phone calls to connect guns used in crimes to their original owners. While Congress has banned the agency from computerizing these records, the fight remains alive and well between anti-gun and gun advocates.

In 1986, the NRA scored a significant victory with the Firearms Owners Protection Act, which allowed individuals to sell weapons from their private collections without obtaining a federal firearms license.

After Waco, Texas, John Magaw became the acting director for the ATF. He instructed the ATF to “… be seen as a neutral agency, not pro-gun and not anti-gun.” 

The NRA has stood behind their stance that if the ATF goes after criminals, they will support their efforts, but as soon as those efforts cross over to infringing upon the rights of gun owners, the support stops.

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