Where's the Conspiracy Theory, USA Today?

Townhall Media

There’s something very odd about USA Today’s new report on the ATF and its recent open letter to FFLs warning that many solvent traps the agency has looked at are considered silencers under its interpretation of the Gun Control Act. Throughout reporter Nick Penzenstadler’s piece, as well as in the original headline, the paper suggests that gun owners have fallen prey to some sort of conspiracy theory regarding the agency’s actions, though he never does get around to explaining what that conspiracy theory is all about.

The original headline of the USA Today piece proclaimed “Conspiracy theories abound as ATF sets sights on on DIY gun silencers“, but has since been replaced by the more prosaic “Gun silencers or solvent traps: Why homemade gun devices are back in the ATF’s crosshairs“. Penzenstadler’s reporting, however, still references “conspiracies” multiple times.

The first mention comes after Penzenstadler detailed some of the ATF’s recent administratively imposed rules; banning bump stocks, going after pistol stabilizing braces and forced reset triggers, and declaring unfinished frames and receivers to be completed firearms if they’re sold as part of a kit, to name just a few. Penzenstadler writes, “For dedicated gun enthusiasts and the gun lobby, the moves all fall under the same category: It’s no conspiracy theory, they’re coming for our guns.”

That’s actually a fair statement, but there’s another inexplicable reference to conspiracy theories deeper in the story; a subheadline that reads “Solvent trap issue stirs controversy, conspiracy theories“. I’m going to share with you everything in the story that comes after that sub-head, so you can see for yourself that there’s no mention whatsoever of any kind of conspiracy theory shared by Penzenstadler.

The ATF raided the manufacturing building and shut down the website of a Michigan company, Diversified Machine, in 2022. Three men ultimately pleaded guilty to conspiring to make and sell $1 million in silencer kits and components without a license under the guise of “solvent traps.”

In the wake of the seizure, ATF obtained the names and addresses of thousands of Diversified Machine’s customers. Agents then sent warning letters in 2022 and showed up on doorsteps to ask people to voluntarily turn over the illegal devices to anyone the agency believed had purchased them.

That action touched off a wave of new criticism of an agency already reviled by many in the gun rights community.

Vitiello says he doesn’t regret sharing the video of his August 2022 confrontation, but in retrospect he said he could have just invoked the Fourth and Fifth Amendments and asked them to leave immediately.

“I’m here about a solvent trap that you ordered,” the agent says at one point. “Do you still have it?”

He goes on to explain that they are “here to pick it up and have it destroyed” and informs Vitiello that if he doesn’t comply, he can be prosecuted for having an illegal device.

Vitiello tells them to come back with a warrant.

“I feel as though I exercised my rights appropriately, although after one of the agents commanded me to remove my hands from my pocket, I admit I quickly became agitated,” Vitiello told USA TODAY. “Having two federal agents accusing you of committing a felony is extremely stressful.”

Harris, the firearms attorney, said the clash depicted in the video is not ideal. He counsels clients approached by the ATF not to answer the door in the first place – but if they do, not to make any statements without first speaking with an attorney.

“The last thing we want is any escalation because those don’t result in good outcomes,” Harris said. “Generally, agents and law enforcement are respectful, but you shouldn’t be speaking without consulting your attorney.”

So what exactly are the conspiracy theories referenced by the headlines? If they “abound”, as the original headline asserted, it shouldn’t be difficult to highlight them, right? Instead of finding some gun owner complaining that ATF Director Steve Dettelbach is a lizard person intent on rounding up our guns, Penzenstadler quotes gun owner Nick Vitiello, as well as some good advice from attorney Dillon Harris from Civil Rights Defense: don’t talk to the AFT without talking with your attorney first; neither of which are the least bit conspiratorial.

Not to be all conspiratorially minded myself, but using that kind of language, especially without any examples to back it up, portrays gun owners in a negative light, wouldn’t you say? At the very least it downplays the legitimate concerns that gun owners have about the ATF’s overreach of its authority, which has been amply documented by the numerous federal courts that have declared the agency’s recent rules likely violated the Administrative Procedures Act.

That’s not the only issue that some folks have with the USA Today story. On X, @GunControlTakes wondered why Penzenstadler claimed “many states” have an outright ban on silencers, when he notes in a later paragraph that they’re “legal in 42 states.”

That’s another oddity, to be sure. And what’s really strange is that Penzenstadler didn’t write a completely one-sided story. He spoke extensively with Vitiello, whose encounter with ATF agents went viral last year, as well as Dillon Harris and Adam Kraut of the Second Amendment Foundation. There’s solid reporting in Penzenstadler’s story, but it’s undercut by the inexplicable references to conspiracy theories and the loaded language suggesting that anyone who complains or takes issue with the ATF’s latest guidance must be a little squirrelly or fond of tinfoil headgear.

For the record, and for what it’s worth, I don’t think there’s any grand conspiracy regarding the ATF and the abuses of authority that we’ve seen in recent years. The agency is a part of the executive branch and it’s to be expected that it will follow the lead of whoever sits in the Oval Office. When it was Donald Trump and he talked about banning bump stocks, the agency found a way. Now that Joe Biden has installed a committed gun control supporter like Steve Dettelbach as agency director and has instructed him to look for any executive actions to advance the administration’s gun control agenda, we’re seeing sweeping new rules on unfinished frames and receivers (a rule that was announced in conjunction with Dettelbach’s nomination), stabilizing braces, and who is “engaged in the business” of selling firearms, along with things like the open letter on solvent traps.

Joe Biden declared the firearms industry the “enemy” when he was running for president in 2020, and he’s done nothing as president to make me believe he’s changed his opinion. Given the congressional gridlock on gun control, Biden’s intent on using his executive branch powers to craft as many anti-gun policies as he can get away with, and the ATF is the primary vehicle for those policies given its role as enforcer of federal firearms regulations. That’s not a theory. The White House Press Office has said as much. So why is USA Today so keen on promoting the idea that gun owners are seeing a shadowy conspiracy behind the ATF’s recent moves, and why have they declined to explain what those conspiracy theories are supposedly all about?