New ATF director faces tough challenges

B. Todd Jones, President Barack Obama's nominee for director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, takes his seat on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, June 11, 2013.  (Photo by Jacquelyn Martin/AP)
B. Todd Jones, President Barack Obama's nominee for director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, takes his seat on Capitol Hill in...

It took seven years, but America finally has a permanent, full-time director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

By a slim margin, the Senate this week approved President Obama’s nominee, B. Todd Jones--but not without drama. In order to stave off a GOP filibuster of the nomination,  Democrats had to convince Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska to change her “no” vote to allow a confirmation vote. And lawmakers anxiously waited for Democratic Sen. Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota to fly from her home state to Capitol Hill (she was reportedly sick) to cast the final cloture vote to get to 60.

And then, after a 53-42 final confirmation vote, Washington finally gave ATF a new director.

Now the real work begins.

Jones, a longtime federal prosecutor who has been the agency’s acting director since 2011, takes the reins of the agency that enforces federal gun laws at a crucial time--after high-profile episodes of gun violence (and bombings like the Boston attack), but also after gun-related scandals like Fast and Furious.

Both pro- and anti-gun control groups acknowledge Jones has a tough road ahead of him. Here’s why:

The ATF’s image has been tarnished: Three words: Fast and Furious. The botched operation to trace the flow of thousands of guns to Mexico’s drug cartels became a huge embarrassment for the Obama administration after one of the weapons was implicated in the death of border patrol agent Brian Terry in 2010. More recently, a chief federal judge in Chicago said this week that controversial ATF sting operations that entice suspects with the promises of cash from fake drug robberies may be unfairly targeting blacks and Hispanics. The government agency’s image has arguably been weakened, and Jones will have to deal with the continuing fallout.

Outcry on the right: Surprisingly, the National Rifle Association did not take swings at Jones’ nomination. The nation’s largest gun lobby, which typically tries to block ATF nominees, remained neutral. That’s not the case with other groups. As Heitkamp was flying back to DC, Gun Owners of America’s executive director Larry Pratt tweeted out Heitkamp’s office phone number, telling his followers to call her and urge her to vote “no.”  On Friday Pratt told msnbc, "He's no friend of the Second Amendment and hasn't been helpful as acting director or going after what his bureau did during Fast and Furious," he said. "Every time he looks cross-eyed, we're going to be coming at him."

Mark Glaze, the director of Mayors Against Illegal Guns told msnbc that for “15 years the NRA has starved the agency and they’ve done it pretty well.” Josh Horwitz, the executive director of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, added “there’s an intent [by gun lobby groups] to keep the ATF weak and ineffective, and to have them constantly be a scapegoat for what’s going on versus the terrible existing laws.”

The ATF is underfunded and understaffed: The ATF has only about 2,500 agents. “It’s very small,” said David Chipman, a former ATF agent for 25 years who now is a consultant to Mayors Against Illegal Guns. Chipman said that number pales in comparison, to say, the DC police force, which has more than 3,000 officers.

A large number will also be up for retirement . According to Ginger Colbrun, the chief of the ATF’s public affairs division, the percentage of current special agents eligible to retire in FY 2017 is almost 40%. “That would take a huge effort to manage new people and try to transfer those skills down. That takes money,” said Chipman.

Then there’s the budget. Currently the ATF’s budget is just over a billion dollars--it hasn’t changed much since the $900 million from a decade ago.

Currently, the ATF is able to inspect licensed gun dealers about once every five years. Brian Malte, the senior national policy director for the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, said more funding and field agents are “desperately needed.” After all, the agency isn’t just dealing with illegal firearms, but explosives, acts of arson and bombings, terrorism, and the illegal diversion of alcohol and tobacco products. There’s “much more work than they have the bandwidth to do,” said Malte.

Colbrun would not comment on if the agency is underfunded or understaffed, saying just that “every federal agency does what they can with what they get…It’s up to Congress” to decide how much the agency gets."

Congress’ inability to pass meaningful gun reform: The ATF can enforce only the laws on the books. Obama and gun control advocates were dealt a huge blow in April after the Senate voted against a bipartisan compromise to expand background checks for gun purchases. All of this will likely continue. “The political challenge is to make the laws as effective as possible. The NRA and their minions will vociferously try to keep them weak,” said Horwitz.