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Leaderless and Under Pressure, Firearms Agency Keeps Gun Tracing Records Secret

The ATF has for years been without a director and subject to restrictions on its ability to take action against gun dealers and share gun tracing information.

Following the mass shooting in Arizona, elected officials have put forth new proposals to curb violence by preventing guns from falling into the wrong hands. One of those proposals called on Congress to at last approve a director for the federal agency responsible for regulating the gun industry and cracking down on gun crime.

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives—better known as the ATF—has gone without a permanent director for four years. The Obama administration, while stating its commitment to doing “all that we can” to stop the flow of U.S. weapons to Mexican drug cartels, waited more than a year and half to even nominate a director—and when a nominee was named, the National Rifle Association was quick to oppose the nomination. The administration re-nominated Andrew Traver last week.

The NRA, one of the nation’s most powerful lobbying groups, also played an instrumental role in the passage of a 2003 law that blocked public access to a database tracing guns used in crimes back to the dealers who sold them. Here’s the Washington Post explaining that law’s effect:

The law effectively shields retailers from lawsuits, academic study and public scrutiny. It also keeps the spotlight off the relationship between rogue gun dealers and the black market in firearms.

On the campaign trail, Barack Obama had vowed to repeal this amendment, but instead he prodded Congres to modify it so that gun tracing information can be shared with state and local law enforcement agencies. This tracing information is still not available to the public or the press.

The Washington Post in October published a series on the gun industry and the limited powers of the ATF. Here’s what it had to say about the agency’s constraints:

Concerns about government regulation of gun ownership have limited the resources available to the ATF, led to strict regulatory restrictions and left the agency without leadership, according to interviews with dozens of former and current ATF officials and examination of thousands of pages of internal documents. The agency still has about the same number of agents it had nearly four decades ago: 2,500. The firearms bureau inspects only a fraction of the nation's 60,000 retail gun dealers, taking as much as eight years between visits to stores. By law, the ATF cannot require dealers to conduct a physical inventory to determine whether any guns have been lost or stolen.

The NRA told the Washington Post that while it doesn’t agree with some of ATF’s priorities, it has not lobbied to limit the agency’s resources. A quick look at the group’s lobbying record on OpenSecrets does show, however, that under the Obama administration, its lobbying expenditures have been at their highest in more than a decade, topping $2 million in both 2009 and 2010.

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