Two months after the massacre in Las Vegas, and one month after the shooting at First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, substantive gun control appears as unlikely as ever, with a president and GOP-led Congress bankrolled by the NRA. Still, there’s a way to strengthen gun control without attempting to ram an ill-fated bill through Congress—increasing funding for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), the hybrid law enforcement and regulatory agency tasked with enforcing our existing gun laws.
ATF is responsible for protecting communities from the illegal use and trafficking of firearms by auditing gun dealerships and tracing lost and stolen guns. Between 2005 and 2012, ATF referred more than 13,000 cases involving more than 27,000 suspects of firearms trafficking to the Justice Department for prosecution. The agency has also been singled out for playing a role in the 19 percent decline in the violent crime rate between 2003 and 2012.
Yet, for years, ATF has been routinely bogged by legislative handcuffs and a stagnating budget that severely limited its potential impact. “One of the problems we’ve all kind of developed in this country is that we give ATF a difficult mission to accomplish,” said Richard Feldman, a former NRA lobbyist and president of the Independent Firearm Owners, a pro-gun rights organization. “And yet we don’t give them the resources to accomplish that mission.”
As gun production and sales have soared recently, so has ATF’s workload. U.S. gun makers produced 11 million guns in 2013, almost twice as many as in 2010. Per capita, there are about twice as many guns now in America as there were in 1968. Still, the agency’s resources have languished. From 2001 to 2015, the total number of ATF staffers has remained stagnant, while the number of investigators employed by the agency has decreased by 150. ATF’s budget did increase 34 percent between 2005 and 2014, but it hasn’t kept pace with the agency’s skyrocketing workload, and it pales in comparison to other federal law enforcement agencies in the post-9/11 security frenzy: over the same period, the FBI’s budget increased 62 percent and Customs and Border Protection’s budget nearly doubled.
ATF’s budget woes tie into a much larger problem—restrictions on the agency from Congress—that leave it unable to adequately complete one of its most crucial tasks, auditing gun dealerships. These limitations aren’t new. In 2003, Brent Kendall detailed the GOP-led restrictions on ATF that have rendered it incapable of effectively auditing gun dealers. ATF can’t “audit a gun dealer more than once a year,” Kendall wrote, “a rule that assures crooked dealers 364 days to do uninterrupted business. And because of dubious judicial precedent, the bureau’s agents can’t get a dealer charged with selling to a felon by going undercover and posing as felons.”
ATF audits of gun dealerships can reveal unreported lost or stolen firearms. Every year, tens of thousands of guns go missing from licensed dealers’ inventories, and these guns are more likely to be used in violent crimes. But the relatively small number of investigators employed by ATF means that the agency can only conduct a tiny percentage of necessary audits. In 2014, the agency reported that it conducted 10,000 dealership inspections covering just 7 percent of all gun dealerships, a 24 percent decrease in inspections from the previous year.
ATF’s role in tracing guns is especially critical to addressing our gun violence epidemic. Licensed dealers are required to report lost or stolen guns, and these reports are sent to ATF’s National Tracing Center, which can establish investigative leads if these firearms turn up on a crime scene. But Republicans, siding with the NRA, have rejected proposals to establish a centralized digital database of gun records, which means that ATF agents spend hours or days shuffling through papers attempting to figure out who owns the guns that are used in crimes. The New York Times has reported that “a central registry could help keep firearms out of the hands of criminals and allow law enforcement officials to act more effectively to prevent gun crime.”
Attorney General Jeff Sessions pledged to prioritize the enforcement of federal gun crimes, but the Trump administration continues to exacerbate these counterproductive restrictions on ATF. The agency’s proposed minimal funding boost for 2018 is tied to a decrease in the total number of staffers and even more handcuffs on the agency.
The Trump administration has taken a characteristically anti-regulatory approach to ATF. Top agency officials have reached out to firearms groups about what regulations they should cut, and ATF’s second-highest ranking official, Ronald Turk, circulated a white paper calling for the removal of restrictions on the sale of gun silencers and a study on the feasibility of lifting the ban on imported assault weapons. After the Las Vegas shooting in October, the Giffords Center to Prevent Gun Violence sued ATF, alleging that the agency is withholding public documents that could reveal the extent to which its staffers are influenced by the gun lobby.
Adequately funding ATF should be a no-brainer—a non-controversial way to fortify the gun laws already on the books. But Republicans, eager to placate the NRA, continue to ensure that ATF lacks real regulatory teeth.
Steve Bannon, the erstwhile Trump adviser, famously promised that the Trump administration would undo the modern regulatory apparatus by fighting for the “deconstruction of the administrative state.” The sustained undercutting of ATF is one potentially enormous consequence of that, contributing to America’s gun violence epidemic by hindering ATF from adequately enforcing current regulations. In the aftermath of two of the deadliest mass shootings in modern American history, the necessity of these regulations and a robust agency to enforce them is as abundantly clear as ever.