The Senate confirmed Todd Jones as director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives this week. He was previously the acting director. The bureau has not had a confirmed director since the National Rifle Association successfully lobbied Congress to require that appointees be confirmed by the Senate in 2006.

Since then, the NRA has consistently opposed President Bush’s and President Obama’s nominees for the position, with the exception of Jones. Lobbyists for the association made clear that the vote on Jones’s nomination would not affect the score the NRA gives lawmakers, but they did not say why. It’s a mystery to me.

Shills for the gun industry such as the NRA often argue that many gun-control proposals wouldn’t reduce violence because they target the wrong problem. For example, few homicides are committed with assault weapons, and almost all guns used in crimes were purchased by someone who cleared a background check, meaning banning assault weapons or requiring universal background checks might not be effective.

To an extent, the industry is probably correct. The best way to reduce gun violence is to make sure ATF has the authority to take action against the very small fraction of unscrupulous gun dealers who sell the weapons that are later used in crimes. Those are the stores that keep the black market in firearms supplied.

The industry lobby, of course, has also worked hard to make sure that ATF remains absurdly impotent. The bureau needs the basic authority to levy fines, suspend licenses, and require inventories in response to violations. The agents need to be able to use computers instead of index cards.

And, ATF needs a confirmed director, which it now has. I have no idea why the NRA abandoned its scorched-earth tactics against the bureau and made this small concession. Note that the NRA never took a position on Jones; the group didn’t reverse itself in response to the truce senators declared on nominations.

Perhaps the leadership figured that ATF would be hamstrung with or without Jones, and that opposing him would not have been worth the effort. Still, the NRA has never voluntarily accepted any limits on its agenda. I’d like to think that maybe, just maybe, the association’s leaders are worried that it is losing the public’s patience, that opposing the president’s legislation damaged the NRA’s credibility, and that asking senators to block Jones would have been going too far. Maybe the fever of firearms fanaticism in Congress has broken at last, and a chastened NRA will hesitate before opposing sensible proposals for reform in the future.


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Max Ehrenfreund is a former Monthly intern and a reporter at The Washington Post. Find him on Twitter: @MaxEhrenfreund