Next month, President Obama will send Congress his plan for tightening gun laws in the wake of last week’s schoolhouse shooting in Newtown, Conn. According to the Associated Press, the president also wants lawmakers to reinstate a ban on miltary-style assault weapons, limit the sale of high-capacity ammunition clips and close loopholes that allow gun dealers to avoid background checks.
We would add another priority to the list — fix the ATF, and quickly.
Some of the deep, crippling problems faced by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives are of the agency’s own making, not the least of which was Operation Fast and Furious, where the agency lost track of 2,000 guns during an attempted sting of the Mexican drug cartels.
Congress, however, has proven to be a major barrier to the ATF’s ability to perform the most basic of tasks, such as ballistics work.
The agency hasn’t had a permanent, full-time director in six years. The current interim director, B. Todd Jones, leads the agency part-time, splitting work with his other job as U.S. Attorney in Minnesota. Obama’s nominee for the permanent post is still waiting for Senate confirmation. The nominee, Andrew Traver, heads the ATF Chicago office and has angered the NRA with what the organization describes as anti-gun activities. Even George W. Bush’s own nominee, former U.S. Attorney for Massachusetts Michael Sullivan, couldn’t get Senate approval.
Meanwhile, work goes undone. The ATF has fewer agents now — about 2,500 — than it did 40 years ago, according to the Washington Post. Its ability to inspect the nation’s 60,000 retail gun dealers is anemic at best, with as many as eight years between visits to stores. Senators have blocked efforts to put gun-ownership records into a usable computer database.
One of the frequent arguments against new gun laws is that the government needs do a better job enforcing the ones already on the books. The first step toward meeting that goal is restoring the ATF to something approximating a functioning agency.