ATF handicapped by laws and a lack of leader

A table of illegal firearms confiscated in a large weapons bust in East Harlem are on display at a press conference on October 12, 2012 in New York City.
A table of illegal firearms confiscated in a large weapons bust in East Harlem are on display at a press conference on October 12, 2012 in New York City.
Mario Tama / Getty Images

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, (ATF), the federal agency responsible for enforcing gun laws, has for years been choked by legislative restrictions that keep it from functioning efficiently, according to a report from The New York Times. The bureau also suffers from a six-year vacancy of its director’s seat.

On the latter issue, a coalition of Mayors Against Illegal Guns (MAIG) is calling for immediate action.

“The A.T.F….has gone without a confirmed director for more than six years,” MAIG wrote in a letter to President Obama last Wednesday. “During that time, criminals and those with serious mental illness have been able to take advantage of insufficient enforcement of existing federal gun laws, and an estimated 72,000 Americans have been murdered with guns…The time has come for you to make a recess appointment to fill the vacancy at the top of the A.T.F.”

It’s easier said than done. In 2010, Obama nominated Andrew Traver, head of the A.T.F.’s Denver division, to fill the top spot, but the Senate is yet to hold his confirmation hearings. What may seem like procrastination by the Judiciary Committee is actually business as usual when it comes to its dealing with the A.T.F.

The bureau functioned as an arm of the Treasury for most of its history, until the September 11th attacks persuaded President George W. Bush to bring it under the jurisdiction of the Justice Department. One consequence of the shuffle was a requirement that the A.T.F. director be confirmed by the Senate. Since then, no director has been confirmed.

In 2007, Bush nominated Mike Sullivan for the position, a U.S. Attorney from Boston with a good reputation, but Republican Sens. Larry Craig and Michael D. Crapo, both from Idaho, blocked his confirmation after complaints from an Idaho gun dealer.

“People said to me at the time that if Mike Sullivan can’t be confirmed, then no one was going to be confirmed,” Sullivan himself said  in 2011, adding: “The agency needs a full-time leader.”

“The bottom line is the gun lobby will oppose any nominee who promises to be a strong and effective director of the A.T.F.,” said Dennis Henigan, vice president of the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence.

Indeed, it was persistent lobbying by the N.R.A. that helped to get the confirmation requirement instated.

But there’s more to the ATF’s ineffectiveness than a lack of director. A thicket of laws and restrictions keep the bureau from instituting policies that could help it to reduce gun violence.

For instance, the A.T.F. is prohibited from creating a federal registry of gun transactions. So when law enforcement needs to identify a gun-owner, officials at the ATF frequently have to page through boxes in a warehouse basement, or trace the transaction through the manufacturer and wholesaler. As the New York Times points out, TV detectives have it much easier than their real-life counterparts.

There’s more—the Firearm Owner’s Protection Act of 1986 prohibits the A.T.F. from making more than one unannounced inspection per year of licensed gun dealers. The Tiahrt Amendments keep the bureau from using tracing data in some court cases, and require background checks of gun buyers to be destroyed within 24 hours of approval.

While gun control advocates say measures like a transaction registry could help keep guns out of the wrong hands, pro-gun groups, backed by the N.R.A., say that such a registry could be misused to harm lawful gun owners. While the two sides argue, Congress remains inactive.

Acting director B. Todd Jones, appointed after the “Fast and Furious” debacle rocked the agency last year, says the job is the toughest he’s ever had.

“Nobody does violent crime work like ATF,” Jones said upon his appointment. “I’m prepared to stay as long as it takes to provide leadership and focus and get them back on their primary law enforcement mission.”