How the NRA Hobbled the ATF

How the NRA Hobbled the ATF

Posted in the Minneapolis Forum

Awful Truth

Saint Paul, MN

#1 Feb 11, 2013
Just a month after the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, President Obama signed nearly two dozen executive actions and proposed a package of legislative initiatives that together represent the most comprehensive effort in decades to reduce what he called "the broader epidemic of gun violence in this country."

Conspicuously absent from the president's agenda, however, is much of anything that might address the stunning and widespread weaknesses that have for years crippled the federal agency responsible for enforcing the nation's gun laws—the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. Yes, the president announced his nomination of a full-time director for the long-leaderless agency, and some of the new proposals do tacitly acknowledge a number of ATF's long-standing challenges. But the initiatives are modest, and Congress may not go along with any of them. So for now, the bureau remains systematically hobbled by purposeful restrictions, flimsy laws, impotent leadership and paltry budgets. And it's not at all clear there's anything on the horizon that would change that situation.

"If you want an agency to be small and ineffective at what it does, the ATF is really the model," says Robert J. Spitzer, author of The Politics of Gun Control. Spitzer, a political science professor at the State University of New York College at Cortland, says the ATF's critics, in particular the National Rifle Association (NRA), have been "extremely successful at demonizing, belittling and hemming in the ATF as a government regulatory agency." The result, he says, is an agency with insufficient staff and resources, whose agents are "hamstrung" by laws and rules that make it difficult or impossible to fulfill their mission.

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ATF declined to make any senior officials available for an interview. But agent George Semonick, a spokesman for the agency noted that ATF "does not make the laws and regulations…ATF will hold to what the laws and regulations allow us to do."

A lack of resources—by design

The ATF employs about 5,000 men and women, approximately the same number of staff it had a decade ago; about half are special agents assigned to conduct criminal investigations. That's a force about the size of the Harris County, Texas, Sheriff's Department. In a letter to Vice President Joe Biden's gun violence commission, 108 academic researchers complained that the ATF's funding was "stagnating" while the budgets of law enforcement agencies such as the FBI had seen "dramatic expansions." Since 1972, the Drug Enforcement Administration's staff has more than doubled, while the FBI's is up by two-thirds. The ATF's current budget of $1.15 billion is little changed from the $900 million it received 10 years ago.
Seattle Slew have at it

Saint Paul, MN

#2 Feb 11, 2013
ATF and FBI are equally incompetent.

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