Officials at Lake of the Ozarks won’t answer ATF questions about local gun businesses

Leaders of the largest county at Missouri’s Lake of the Ozarks say they will not answer questions from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives about local gun businesses.

At Thursday’s county commission meeting, Presiding Commissioner Ike Skelton notified the public that the ATF had recently sent emails to county staffers asking whether four gun businesses were in compliance with local zoning and business licensing regulations.

Skelton said the county would not cooperate and read aloud from a letter he intended to send to the ATF on Camden County letterhead.

The commissioner said the ATF had been “weaponized” under the Biden administration and said he viewed the information request as part of a larger attempt to revoke federal firearm licenses.

“I believe it is their intent to revoke as many licenses as possible to squeeze them down to the large sellers such as Bass Pro, Academy Sports, things of this nature, so they can keep a very close eye on who is and who is not selling firearms,” Skelton said. “I think they want to squeeze the small business person out the best possible way they can.”

John Ham, spokesman for the ATF’s Kansas City field division, said the agency’s inquiries were routine: the law requires that the ATF check whether gun manufacturers and sellers are in compliance with local zoning and business regulations. The only time those questions are asked, he said, is when the agency is considering issuing new licenses or renewing existing ones.

“That’s what is prompting our inquiries — trying to put people into the firearms business,” Ham said. “It has nothing to do with taking people out of the firearms business.”

Reached on the phone Thursday afternoon, Skelton rejected that explanation.

“I do not trust the ATF at all,” he said. “I think they will use anything they can to revoke licenses.”

The presiding commissioner wouldn’t elaborate on exactly what information the ATF was seeking. He said more explanation would be provided at a Friday press conference in Camden County.

At the commission meeting, Skelton cited Missouri’s Second Amendment Preservation Act, which declared certain federal gun laws “invalid” if they don’t have a state-level equivalent. The law has sown confusion among Missouri law enforcement, who questioned how much they could cooperate with federal officials.

Following a legal challenge from the U.S. Justice Department, a federal judge overturned the law in March, finding it “unconstitutional in its entirety.” Missouri Attorney General Andrew Bailey plans to appeal that decision.

In early 2021, Camden County passed a local ordinance designating the county as a “Second Amendment Sanctuary County.” That ordinance states that all local, state and federal rules and laws regarding firearms are a violation of the U.S. Constitution’s Second Amendment. The ordinance allows county officials to refuse cooperation with state and federal firearm laws that they view as in violation of gun rights.

That ordinance is apparently referenced in Camden County’s letter to the ATF.

“Therefore I construe any attempt to receive information about our citizens pertaining to firearms as an attempt to coerce our employees to break Missouri law,” Skelton read aloud during Thursday morning’s meeting. “You may consider this letter as a response to your probe.”

At the morning meeting, commissioners asked Camden County Sheriff Tony Helms what he thought of the letter.

“You want me to sign?” he responded.

Ham, the ATF spokesman, said the agency had not yet seen the Camden County letter. But he said he’s never heard of this issue arising before in the Kansas City office, which oversees criminal enforcement and industrial regulation in Kansas, Missouri, Iowa, Nebraska and the southern half of Illinois. He said regulators across that region have approved 9,760 federal firearm licenses, which must be renewed every three years.

“This is the first time that it’s been brought to our attention,” he said. “So I’m not aware of any other government entities not wanting to provide this information.”

On the phone Thursday, the sheriff said federal law enforcement agencies had been “nothing but generous, kind and helpful” across his 30-year career at the lake. But he said the ATF has been an exception as of late.

“I don’t know what happened with the ATF, but they got heartburn over the Second Amendment Preservation Act and I haven’t seen an agent here since then,” Helms said.

He echoed concerns that the ATF has made politically motivated decisions under President Joe Biden’s leadership. But he also worried that the county’s refusal to answer the agency’s questions could ultimately harm the local gun businesses.

“I don’t want to jam these four businesses up,” he said. “If we wind up screwing them over and they wind up losing their licenses, I don’t want to be the cause of it.”