Government Agency Charged With Enforcing Gun Laws Has No Permanent Director, Tiny Staff

ATF official sealBureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives

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In the wake of the Newtown tragedy, several members of Congress have pledged to push new gun control restrictions in early 2013. But the Washington Post reported Tuesday that the main federal agency charged with gun regulation—the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF)—has been so kneecapped by the gun industry that it can barely enforce the laws already on the books.

The ATF hasn’t had a permanent director since the Bush administration, and even then, President George W. Bush, no softie on guns, couldn’t get his pick confirmed for the post. Idaho Republican senators Michael Crapo and Larry “Wide Stance” Craig (then and still a member of the National Rifle Association’s board of directors) blocked Bush’s nomination of Michael J. Sullivan, the Massachusetts US Attorney, arguing that he had it in for gun dealers.

Part of the problem is that Congress, in its wisdom, removed ATF from the Treasury Department and turned it into a stand-alone agency in 2006, adding the agency’s director to the list of posts that require Senate confirmation. Thanks to the NRA’s lobbying power, the Senate has never confirmed anyone for the job since then, leaving the agency rudderless. The ATF’s current acting director is working out of the US Attorney’s office in Minnesota.

Lack of stable leadership isn’t the ATF’s only problem. The bureau employs fewer people than it did almost 40 years ago, with fewer than 2,500 people on hand to regulate the 310 million guns and 60,000 gun dealers in the US. The Post reports that the ATF is so shorthanded that gun dealers can expect an ATF inspection about once every eight years.

“If the administration and Congress are serious about addressing this problem, they need to fund the gun police, the agency charged with administering the firearms regulations,” Michael Bouchard, a former ATF assistant director, told the Post. “Unless they are going to do this completely, simply passing some form of gun legislation is only part of the solution.”

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