As President Barack Obama looks to reduce gun violence after the Connecticut massacre through reforms like reinstating the assault weapons ban, he and supporters of sane gun laws in Congress need to be equally serious about strengthening the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, the beleaguered agency charged with enforcing federal firearm regulations.
Ending the bureau’s leadership vacuum is the first challenge. The bureau, which has been mired in a scandal over Operation Fast and Furious, the botched scheme to investigate gun trafficking across the Mexican border, has been without a permanent full-time director for six years – ever since the National Rifle Association convinced Congress that the position should require Senate confirmation. Obama’s 2010 nomination of Andrew Traver, now head of the bureau’s Denver division, has stalled for no good reason, except for NRA opposition and White House reluctance to wage a battle to fill the post.
It is a fight worth having. The current acting director, B. Todd Jones, who also serves as the U.S. attorney in Minnesota, is the fifth acting director since 2006. Obama has called on the Senate to make confirming a permanent director “a priority.” But it will take a lot more than a polite request to break the logjam.
One immediate task for Vice President Joe Biden, who is heading the new White House group on gun violence that will report recommendations in January, is to focus on dismantling the senseless obstacles impeding the bureau’s day-to-day functioning.
The bureau — which should have a lead role in protecting the nation from gun crimes — has been severely hindered by an array of NRA-backed legislative restrictions. For example, a 1986 law prohibits ATF agents from making more than one unannounced inspection a year on a gun dealer, a rule that serves no purpose other than protecting unscrupulous dealers. (As it is, a lack of agents means that a gun shop can go years between inspections.)
The same law makes it extremely difficult to pull the licenses of rogue gun dealers. The government must show not just that the conduct was intentional but that the violator knew it was illegal.
Language included in every ATF appropriations bill since 1979 has prohibited the bureau from putting gun sales records into a central computer database. That means workers at the bureau’s tracing center often must call gun makers and sellers and go through paper files to identify the buyer of a gun linked to a crime.
Finally, the Tiahrt amendments, attached to federal spending bills, require the federal government to destroy the background check records of gun buyers within 24 hours of approval. That makes it very hard to identify dealers who falsify sales records.
On “Meet the Press” on Sunday, Obama reiterated his commitment to lay out a package of gun reforms quickly and put his “full weight behind it.” In addition to a tough assault weapons ban, he should be pushing to bar sales of high-capacity ammunition clips and to close the loophole that allows felons and other buyers to evade background checks at gun shows. Empowering the ATF is another step that clearly needs to be part of his agenda.