Conspiracy Theorists Would Have Loved Tom Coburn's Government Ammo Law

Senator Tom Coburn withdrew a proposed amendment making government agencies report on the number of firearms and amount of ammunition they possess. Why he introduced it in the first place is a much more interesting question, so we asked his people.

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Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma has withdrawn a proposed amendment intended to make government agencies annually report on the number of firearms and amount of ammunition they possess. The amendment got a lot of attention because it was somewhat inexplicably attached to a bill that was focused on water resources. It should also get attention because it happens to coincide with a recent theory propagated by paranoiacs.

The amendment — one of two Coburn proposed — was not well received by the bill's sponor, Barbara Boxer of California. The Huffington Post reported on her reaction:

"We're working on a critical infrastructure bill, and the first two Republican amendments are not about jobs, are not about business, are not about commerce -- are about guns!" she said incredulously.

The amendment Coburn didn't withdraw would have allowed gun owners with permits to carry their weapons onto federal land that's currently off limits. (The Senate failed to end filibuster on the bill, effectively killing it.)

The one he withdrew was likely more interesting. As Gavin Aronsen of Mother Jones put it, the amendment would have created a sort of firearms registry for government agencies. You may remember that Coburn was originally a participant in Senate talks about expanding background checks at gun shows and for online sales, but balked over concerns that the information could be used to create a registry of gun owners.

Coburn's bill wasn't quite as ironic as that would imply. What it would have done is require government agencies to provide annual updates on four things: how many firearms the agency acquired, how many rounds of ammunition it bought (and what kinds), how many firearms it lost or had stolen, and the total number of firearms in its possession. A registry, of sorts, but really more of a catalog.

What's interesting is why Coburn introduced the amendment. When asked for his rationale in an email exchange with The Atlantic Wire this afternoon, a spokesman for the senator first noted that Coburn had "done work on this before," pointing to the senator's letter to Homeland Security last November asking for a subset of the above information. That request resulted in Homeland Security sending back a detailed set of data.

That data may look familiar. It came up yesterday, when we were debunking a currently in-vogue conspiracy theory that suggests the government is stockpiling ammunition and or firearms for some nefarious purpose. Or, more specifically, one of two nefarious purposes: either because it's trying a backdoor measure to keep ammo out of the hands of citizens, or that it is ensuring its capability to stamp out any uprising. (Remember: A recent poll indicated that nearly half of Republicans think armed rebellion is likely over the short term.) The idea, encouraged by conspiracist par excellence Alex Jones, continues to be a popular topic of discussion, primarily in right-wing circles. As it was toward the end of last year, when Coburn did some of that "work on this before."

Shortly before this story was posted, another representative of Coburn's office assured the Wire that the conspiracy theory was not the senator's concern. "His concern," John Hart told us, "is the same one he raised in 2008 when he released a report criticizing the federal government for not keeping track of guns and ammo." That report does indeed argue that the Department of Justice was keeping poor track of its weapons. Coburn's proposal yesterday expands that in scope and depth.

If even part of the amendment was meant to appeal to those worried about government thugs, it probably wouldn't have worked. For one thing, it seems hard to believe that the government would work to create a secret stockpile of weapons and then present data on that stockpile when asked. But for another, the amendment exempted the CIA and military, if they could provide an argument that sharing the information would breach national security. There are about 1.5 million people on active duty in the military — six times the size of Homeland Security, making it a much more likely force for the government to use in the run up to Doomsday. (Not to mention that active duty members of the armed forces are probably better equipped to fight than the tens of thousands of Homeland Security folks who spend their days behind a desk.) But Coburn would let the military avoid revealing that data at all.

The senator's press person wasn't able to say whether or not he would reintroduce the bill at some future time. If you're curious if he will, maybe tune in to Alex Jones' radio show for a while.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.