Republican lawmakers accused the Obama administration Monday of overreach in its stringent scrutiny of industries it considers “high risk,” saying legislation may be needed to rein in a regulation regime that has targeted gun retailers, who complain that federal action is limiting their access to banks and squeezing them out of business.
Rep. Blaine Luetkemeyer, Missouri Republican and vice chairman of the House Committee on Small Business, noted that the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. has directed banks to apply extra scrutiny to “high risk” businesses — such as gun sellers, pornography shops and drug paraphernalia stores — that use payment processors such as PayPal for credit card transactions.
“If the regulators continue down this path of picking entire industries rather than an individual bad actor, everything is on the table, including legislation,” said Mr. Luetkemeyer, who has pressed the Justice Department and the FDIC to allow some banks to serve legitimate businesses on the “high risk” list.
Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, the ranking Republican on the Senate Committee on the Judiciary, compared the Obama administration’s close monitoring of legal industries, such as gun manufacturing, to its loose enforcement of drug laws — particularly in Washington state and Colorado, both of which have legalized the recreational use of pot.
“Apparently, the Obama administration sees businesses that serve Americans who exercise their Second Amendment rights as ‘high risk’ but not businesses that violate federal law by selling marijuana,” Mr. Grassley said. “Obama’s banking regulators turn a blind eye to those businesses because a few state laws allow the recreational use of marijuana, but then they try to force legitimate industries out of business through regulatory intimidation.
“This kind of absurd policy reeks of hypocrisy and undermines the rule of law.”
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The Washington Times reported Monday about gun manufacturers and sellers who have complained that federal regulations and investigations have threatened their legitimate businesses with insolvency.
A key part of the federal effort is the Justice Department’s Operation Choke Point, a credit card fraud probe focusing on banks and payment processors. The threat of enforcement has prompted some banks to cut ties with online gun retailers, even if those companies have valid licenses and good credit histories.
“The news of the DOJ targeting gun shops through Operation Choke Point is deeply troubling but not at all surprising,” said Rep. Patrick T. McHenry, North Carolina Republican and member of the House Committee on Financial Services. “Time and again this administration has used the guise of enforcement to instead target and punish those with whom they disagree, gun shop owners being the latest example. It is time the DOJ focus on legitimate bad actors instead of forcing these small retailers out of business.”
Former FDIC Chairman William Isaac also had pointed criticism of the administration’s regulatory practices.
“Actions of this sort by regulators are unprecedented and very dangerous to our free-market economy and constitutional democracy,” Mr. Isaac said. “Any business engaged in lawful activity should have access to banking services.”
Meanwhile, the National Rifle Association said in a statement: “We’re extremely concerned. We’ve seen a pattern of behavior from this administration using agencies for political purposes. We don’t want to telegraph to the media what our next steps are, but we’re looking into the matter and all options are on the table. This wouldn’t be the first time where the administration is using its agencies for punishment.”
SEE ALSO: Targeted? Gun sellers’ ‘high risk’ label from feds cuts banking options, hurts business
In a May 7 blog post, the Justice Department said it is “committed to ensuring that our efforts to combat fraud do not discourage or inhibit the lawful conduct of these honest merchants.”
Still, gun makers and sellers decry the executive branch’s targeting of their businesses:
• T.R. Liberti, owner and operator of Top Gun Firearms Training & Supply in Miami, has felt the sting firsthand. Last month, his local bank, BankUnited N.A., dumped his business from its service.
An explanatory email from the bank said: “This letter in no way reflects any derogatory reasons for such action on your behalf. But rather one of industry. Unfortunately your company’s line of business is not commensurate with the industries we work with.”
• Black Rifle Armory in Henderson, Nevada, had its bank accounts frozen this month as the bank tried to determine whether any of Black Rifle’s online transactions were suspicious.
• In 2012, Bank of America suddenly dropped the 12-year account of McMillan Group International, a gun manufacturer in Phoenix, even though the company had a good credit history, the owner said. Gun parts maker American Spirit Arms in Scottsdale, Arizona, received similar treatment by Bank of America, the country’s largest banking institution.
The American Banking Association, the industry’s advocacy group in Washington, said businesses deemed “risky” will be frozen out of the financial system if the Justice Department continues Operation Choke Point because the regulatory burden and risk of investigation will be too great for less-specialized banks to bear.
“Regulators don’t have the right to pick which businesses are moral,” said Mr. Luetkemeyer, who is also a member of the House Committee on Financial Services. “They are there to enforce the law, and that’s where their regulatory business stops.”
Mr. Isaac, a former FDIC chairman now with FTI Consulting, a financial firm, said some people may not be bothered that payday lenders or firearms dealers have been targeted, but they should be wary that what is defined as “moral” can change with administrations.
“While the list might not bother you today because you dislike the activities of the targeted companies, will you still feel the same way if/when the next President Nixon takes office,” he said. “This is a very slippery slope.”