The War Against Gun Control: How the NRA Plots to Take Out the ATF
November 9, 2013
Dan Freedman / Hearst Newspapers and the SF Chronicle
The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives is under siege, a hostage in the long war over guns and their place in America's social fabric. It is the federal agency that National Rifle Association loves to hate. The ATF, charged with keeping track of the nation's 300 million guns, has an annual budget of $1 billion -- a pittance compared with the $8 billion showered on the FBI. The ATF has also been the bain of the country's tobacco and alcohol industries.
ATF Poorly Armed with Funding as Duties Grow
WASHINGTON, DC (November 2, 2013) -- The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives is an agency under siege, a hostage of sorts in the long war over guns and their proper place in America's social fabric. It is the federal agency that National Rifle Association members and other gun enthusiasts love to hate.
The ATF, charged with keeping track of the nation's 300 million guns, has an annual budget of $1 billion, half that of the Drug Enforcement Administration and a pittance compared with the $8 billion showered on the FBI. In addition to firearms, the bureau investigates bombings, regulates the explosives industry and tries to halt illegal trafficking of alcohol and cigarettes.
As enforcement responsibilities grow and its funding stays static -- the bureau's roster of agents has grown by just 38 in the past 12 years, to 2,388 -- some jobs slip through the cracks.
The agency is incapable of inspecting a majority of the nation's 137,000 gun dealers and other licensees within a mandated five-year time frame, according to a Justice Department inspector general's report in April.
One result: From 2004 to 2011, the number of firearms considered lost or stolen increased 18 percent, to 174,679. Many of those are believed to have fallen into the hands of criminals.
When investigators identify gun dealers guilty of serious violations, the bureau is slow to revoke licenses. The inspector general's report said a third of such cases from 2005 through 2010 took more than a year. In the seven years leading up to 2011, the number of revocations dropped 43 percent.
"Just look at the numbers," said Marvin Richardson, deputy assistant director for enforcement programs and services for the agency. "They speak for themselves."
The misguided Operation Fast and Furious, in which agents in Phoenix were told to stand by while Mexican drug cartel intermediaries bought weapons in local gun stores and smuggled them across the border, largely resulted from management errors within the bureau and the local U.S. attorney's office.
Fast and Furious
But Fast and Furious also reflected the agency's failure to cope with lagging resources, especially the lack of agents needed for a far-reaching investigation that involved surveillance and wiretaps. The Justice Department inspector general's report last year on Fast and Furious said agents were overextended and "struggled with surveillance due to limited resources."
The resource issue raises the question: Is the agency capable of fulfilling the NRA's mantra invoked to prevent new gun legislation -- "Enforce the laws already on the books"?
"The short answer is yes," said Vivian Michalic, the bureau's chief financial officer. "Can we be more effective with additional resources? I think the answer to that is also yes."
There are many forces behind the agency's second-class status. One is federal law enforcement competition, where the agency has long struggled with the FBI, Drug Enforcement Administration and others for dollars.
But a major factor is the political animosity generated by enforcing gun laws. The NRA stands out as the single organization in or out of government most intimately involved in shaping the bureau's mission.
Jim Pasco, an ATF lobbyist on Capitol Hill in the 1980s and '90s, recalls negotiating the agency's budget with his NRA counterpart, Jim Baker.
"I'd say, 'I need 200 more agents, 100 more inspectors,' " said Pasco, who added that he promised the new hires would stick to chasing criminals with guns, not the gun owners and collectors who are the bulwark of the NRA.
After that, he said, Baker "would sign off."
Baker, now the gun group's senior lobbyist, insists that the NRA never had veto power over agency's budgets. "The contention that somehow the NRA is responsible for the amount of money appropriated or not appropriated for ATF is erroneous," he said.
But the NRA keeps pressure on the agency in a manner unlike any opponent of the FBI or Drug Enforcement Administration. Indeed, that's how the NRA raises a chunk of its budget.
"We are a membership organization; we do fundraise," Baker said. "When ATF screws gun owners, we're going to talk about it."
The NRA's efforts to control the ATF have ended up costing the bureau millions. An NRA-supported congressional appropriations provision prevents the agency from building a national gun registry.
As a result, the 375 contract employees at its National Tracing Center in Martinsburg, W.Va., work largely without computers, relying on phone calls and scanned or microfilmed paper records to connect crime gun serial numbers to original purchasers.
William Earle, who retired in 2004 as the agency's chief financial officer, said the failure to computerize the registry had cost the bureau "hundreds of millions of dollars" it could ill afford to lose.
Since 1990, the NRA's political action committee has donated nearly $350,000 directly to the campaigns of senators and representatives on the appropriations subcommittees with control over the ATF's budget.
Lobbying disclosure reports show another flank of the NRA's offensive on the subcommittees that write the agency's budget. From 1999 to 2009, the NRA dished out $3.6 million to a team of lobbyists from private firms working on those appropriations bills.
"When things come up, we have a lot of congresspeople on our side," said Jeff Knox, head of the Firearms Coalition in Arizona. "They don't need marching orders from NRA to restrain an agency that's proven to be an enemy to us."
Dan Freedman is a reporter in the Hearst Newspapers Washington bureau.
(c) 2013 Hearst Communications, Inc.
Posted in accordance with Title 17, Section 107, US Code, for noncommercial, educational purposes.