New sales ban on ivory – antiques and the gun industry

Yesterday the Obama administration banned the sale of elephant ivory within the United States.  There are a few hard to qualify for exceptions.  Do read the White House links within the Washington Post article.

This is somewhat a remarkable dictum.  I know it’s eligible for a typical conservative / libertarian discussion where we ask ‘can the government do that?”  I’m going to skip that, and assume they can.  My interest and insight is practical.  I work a niche smithing practice that services patrons who like the old Peacemaker pattern revolver.  Think John Wayne or Matt Dillion.  Or read this:

The SAA is literally a fetish item these days.  Guys don’t really buy them to shoot them, because they are obsolete in comparison to everything invented in the last 100 years.  But there remains a fairly vibrant sub-culture for them, and (old) guys buy them to have one, to stroke while they watch western movies.   And these guys buy ivory grip panels for them at times.

Not a sub-culture is the interest in the 1911.

It’s the most popular handgun in the world, and a big slice of the dominant firearms culture.  People buy ivory grip panels for those.  They are still quite popular on 1911s.  I’m not sure the ivory trade, illicit or otherwise, is very big in ‘real’ terms by which we evaluate commerce.  But I can’t think of an American industry that uses it more than the firearms industry.

I don’t make or sell ivory grip panels, and don’t own any.  But I have encountered them, and had a working knowledge of how ivory items had to be bought and sold in such a way that you felt in compliance with the 1989 ban.

Basically, anyone who crafted anything from it – say guitar luthiers and grip panel makers – had to cut from tusks or other material inventories imported prior to 1989.  And if you had a practice doing this, you had licenses from US Fish and Wildlife, and you would keep a book and furnish certifications to both the department and customers who bought your stuff.  That’s the shorthand.

If you were a antique store or fine jewelry store operator, you basically had to have a credible explanation for your item being in the country before 1989.  Dated receipts or ‘looks really old’ may have even sufficed, as a practical matter.

On the flea market circuit, I don’t know if your items actually needed paperwork, but people have not been adhering to a paperwork requirement.  If you were selling, you would assert that your item was antique, made prior to 1989.  If you were buying, you could feel comfortable with that assertion.  Note ebay stopped allowing ivory sales a couple years ago, 1989 ban or not.

So all that’s changed, and now we have a near complete ban.  Here’s the practical takeaways I see, which I take to start immediately.

  • The grip panel makers who work in ivory – and I can think of a half dozen elite artisans who do that for firearms – are done doing that.  To work in ivory, your raw tusks must be over 100 years old and must have excellent paperwork.
  • Whatever inventories these guys have, they’re stuck with them.  It’s not liquid.  It can’t be sold.
  • You can’t sell ivory items within the country, with very few exceptions.  Yes, there is an avenue for items 100 or more years old, but as a practical matter this is a very high compliance bar.  You’ll need excellent, compelling documentation.
  • The ban is expressed as a sales ban, but not a possession ban.  In the press release and strategy document there is some expression by the government that small antique items handed down within family –  tchotke’s, curios, and fetishes – are not going to be pursued by law enforcement.  It does seem the emphasis will be to seize those items offered for sale publically, and that they can be seized on sight.  If that happens, the onus is on you to prove they meet the 100 yr age requirement.  You’ll then need high quality documentation to get your stuff back.
  • I don’t know what it means to be in violation of this new sales ban, which seems to be lacking in legislative codification.  For one thing, I’m unclear as to jurisdiction and penalties for violation.  I’ll go out on a limb and say you don’t want to be prosecuted for this.
  • I doubt it’s wise to display your ivory grips on your guns at gun shows.  I’d be unwilling to try and parse that ambiguity between FOR SALE and FOR DISPLAY ONLY.
  • I’m not convinced a letter from Colt authenticating the configuration of your piece as more than 100 years old is going to suffice if you find yourself in a pinch.
  • I doubt it’s wise to sell your ivory handled guns on Gunbroker, Armslist, or the club bulletin board.  Get new grips, made of plastic or wood, whatever, then sell your thing.
  • So basically, all these items got to go in the closet.  Put them away.

I have no belligerent, ideological words to say about this.  Fact is, people probably shouldn’t be hunting elephants, at all.  And in the wide scheme of things this is all supposed to remove demand, and thus the poaching pressure.  I will say, there are some due process observations that can be made about these regulations, and they are a bit foreboding, but this is common to the age we live in.


4 thoughts on “New sales ban on ivory – antiques and the gun industry

  1. pm1956


    I am familiar with the issue, but from a completely different angle. I have a strong interest in Africa and in zoos. I have seen the devastation caused by poachers on both elephants, and even more pressingly, on rhinos. i have also witnessed the same process on abalone in South Africa: very endangered, but there is a huge illegal abalone (perlmoen in South Africa) trade, caused by demand in China.

    Thing is, Rhino horn, ivory, abalone , all are caused by huge demand in Asia. No one has been able to curb that demand at its source. Trying to stop this problem at the supply end has, so far, been fruitless (there are some examples of temporary success, but…).

    The obvious analogy is with the drug trade. The US has been completely unable to “solve” the illegal drug issue thru attempts to manage/control the supply. Temporary success in combatting the growth of cocoaine/coca plantations has only led to increased demand/price, and alternate sources of coca.

    Are we likely to be any more successful wrt ivory and rhino horn?

    1. Erik Petersen Post author

      No, I don’t think it will, because of that very thing. US consumption is very small. So there is some disappointment to have to incur this, and I would say it dramatically alters the landscape of this niche commercial eco-system that I wander through. But there might be some wisdom in being part of the solution rather than the problem. I guess.

  2. Pingback: Ivory Ban, update | Zingy Skyway Lunch

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