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Embroiled in Controversy, ATF Has Long Been Leaderless and Hamstrung

As criticism grows over an anti-smuggling operation that backfired, the federal agency that ran the surveillance program—the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives—is facing serious questions about its leadership.

Tasked with regulating the gun industry and cracking down on gun crime, the ATF has been accused of allowing suspected gun smugglers to purchase weapons. The strategy, agency whistleblowers explained, was to track the weapons in order to identify ringleaders and dismantle drug rings. (The whistleblower accounts were first reported by CBS and iWatch.) But as ATF-tracked weapons have turned up in Mexican police raids and been linked to the deaths of U.S. Border Patrol agents, congressional criticism has reached a fever pitch.

Given this, it’s worth reviewing what we know about the ATF, which has long been a target of the gun industry and had its powers limited by Congress. In a piece this week, the New York Times listed a few such limitations:

The Firearm Owners Protection Act of 1986, for instance, banned the A.T.F. from conducting more than one unannounced inspection of a gun dealer per year, and made it tougher for the agency to revoke the licenses of dealers who break the law.

Congress has blocked the bureau from keeping a centralized computer database of gun transactions. Advocates say a database would make it easier to trace weapons, reducing the need for complex surveillance operations like Fast and Furious.

“They’re left with literally trying to physically follow these guns out of the gun shop,” said Dennis Henigan, vice president of the The Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence.

Police query the agency’s antiquated tracing system when crimes have occurred and guns have been recovered. Identifying information is passed along to ATF specialists, according to a thorough investigation last year by the Washington Post. The specialists typically follow the distribution chain from the manufacturer through shippers to find the gun seller and ultimately the name of the first buyer. The process can take weeks. 

As we’ve noted, the agency hasn’t had a leader for years. Congress moved five years ago to require Senate confirmation for the post, and no nominee has passed muster since, according to the Times. (The agency’s current acting director, Kenneth Melson, has for weeks resisted calls for his resignation.) 

The Post has noted that the agency has about 2,500 agents—the same number it had nearly four decades ago.

A report last year by the agency’s inspector general faulted the ATF [PDF] for focusing too much on low-level buyers at the expense of higher-level traffickers.

“ATF’s focus remains largely on inspections of gun dealers and investigations of straw purchasers, rather than on higher-level traffickers, smugglers, and the ultimate recipients of the trafficked guns,” the report said. “Some ATF managers discourage field personnel from conducting the types of complex conspiracy investigations that target higher-level members of trafficking rings.”

Now it seems the agency is being accused of botching a program intended to shift the focus to higher-level traffickers. The inspector general’s office is investigating the controversial anti-trafficking program. Prominent Republican lawmakers have leveled their criticism at the Justice Department, which oversees ATF. Meanwhile, some Democrats have argued that the problems show that gun laws need to be strengthened

The family of one slain border patrol agent has said that while the program was “ill-conceived and reckless,” the focus should remain on prosecuting gun smugglers and not ATF or DOJ officials, the Hill reported today.

A National Rifle Association spokesman told the Los Angeles Times that it’s increased enforcement that’s needed—not more legislation. Yet the NRA voiced opposition last year to an Obama administration nominee to head the ATF. As the Post has noted, the group has lobbied successfully for legislation to keep gun tracing records secret, to ban the ATF from requiring dealers to conduct gun inventories and to block any move to make gun-ownership records accessible in the form of a national registry.

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