MILWAUKEE (TNS) — The U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, charged with enforcing the nation’s gun laws and regulating the firearms industry, has been so hobbled by high-profile operational failures, internal dysfunction and external limits on its authority that the agency should be eliminated and merged into the FBI, a new report concludes.
The report, by the left-leaning Center for American Progress, comes in the wake of a bill by Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) that seeks to dissolve the agency and move its law enforcement and gun industry regulatory functions into the FBI and other agencies.
The bill and the report are the latest in a series of efforts, from both sides of the political spectrum and even by veterans of the ATF, to reform or eliminate the agency. In July, a Government Accountability Office report on the ATF described an agency trying to redefine itself while struggling with high personnel turnover and internal problems.
The think tank’s 180-page report, being released Tuesday, traces the agency from its origins as a tax collection agency to the present, as it again finds itself with no director and beset by problems.
The report’s authors interviewed more than 50 current and former ATF personnel, and retired Supervisory Special Agent Mark D. Jones advised the authors. The report’s argument boils down to this: The vital job of keeping guns out of the hands of criminals is too important to leave to a weakened, embattled agency like the ATF.
“ATF, as it currently exists, suffers from substantial weakness that compromises its ability to effectively combat gun crime and regulate the firearms industry, and a new director or piecemeal changes cannot fully solve these problems,” the report concludes. “It is time to consider a major reboot of how these issues are addressed at the federal level and for an overhaul of the federal law enforcement agencies responsible for doing so.”
The report details several embarrassing episodes, including Operation Fast and Furious, where agents watched as thousands of guns passed into criminals’ hands and wound up at crime scenes in Mexico. It also examined problematic undercover storefront operations, which were the subject of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s “Backfire” investigation.
In the Milwaukee operation, agents lost guns, used a mentally disabled man as a source and arrested some of the wrong people — problems, the Journal Sentinel found, that were repeated across the nation.
Sensenbrenner’s office said the congressman continues to support dissolving the ATF, calling it a “duplicative, scandal-ridden agency that lacks a clear mission.”
ATF officials did not return calls and emails seeking comment.
A statement from the Department of Justice, which oversees the agency, said the department “supports ATF in its current form and believes Congress should fully fund the president’s budget request that will enhance ATF’s ability to carry out their important mission.”
The report’s proposal to fold the ATF into the FBI differs in at least one significant way from Sensenbrenner’s bill.
Sensenbrenner’s proposal would keep the prohibition against the ATF publicly sharing data about how many crime guns are sold by gun dealers. The new report says those limits hinder law enforcement’s ability to enforce gun laws. Gun rights groups have pushed hard to get those limits and keep them in place.
An earlier Journal Sentinel investigation revealed how those and other special rules created by Congress protected corrupt crime gun dealers and allowed them to escape ATF punishment by shifting its ownership.
Gun control and gun rights groups both came out against Sensenbrenner’s proposal last year. The National Rifle Association didn’t have a comment on Sensenbrenner’s bill last year, but the NRA made it clear recently that the group is against dissolving the ATF. Jennifer Baker, an NRA spokeswoman, said the problem with the ATF is not where it is located.
“The Obama administration has only contributed to ATF’s dysfunction by politicizing the agency to advance its gun control agenda,” she said. “No matter where the ATF is located, nothing will change until we get a president who respects the 2nd Amendment.”
Gun control groups and a gun rights group, the National Shooting Sports Foundation, opposed Sensenbrenner’s bill, saying Director B. Todd Jones should have a chance to make changes. Jones, the first confirmed ATF director in seven years, resigned earlier this year and the ATF is back to having an acting director. No one has been nominated to replace Jones.
On Monday, Larry Keane, senior vice president of the foundation, said moving the ATF into the FBI would create problems.
“ATF has regulated the firearms industry for decades,” he said. “It would be very disruptive and costly to our industry to have to begin dealing with a new, unfamiliar regulatory agency.”
Arkadi Gerney, senior vice president at the Center for American Progress, which produced the report, said gun rights groups want to keep a weakened ATF.
“They like someone they can kick around and an FBI director with a 10-year term is not something they want to deal with,” Gerney said.
The new report calls the agency an “accident of history.”
What started as a Civil War-era taxing agency grew into a law enforcement agency that still has regulatory responsibilities. Because of the way the agency grew, it has struggled to define its mission and implement controls on its operations, the report said. In the meantime, the important mission of curtailing the flow of illegal guns is going unfulfilled.
The report recommends making the ATF a branch inside the FBI. It recommends putting gun store inspections in the FBI, noting that the bureau already runs background checks on gun purchases.
The ATF has more than 4,700 employees and a budget of just over $1 billion. The center’s report estimates folding the ATF into the FBI would provide a 10-year savings of $411 million, assuming no layoffs or job elimination.
The new report says the ATF’s morale has fallen. A decade ago, the ATF ranked eighth out of 200 federal workplaces. Last year, it was 279th out of 314, the report found. Jones himself called it “an agency in distress” when he took over.
“These problems and the culture that underlies them have developed over decades,” the report said. “It may be beyond the capability of even an exceptionally qualified director to fix some of them.”
The ATF has been on the chopping block before. It was considered for elimination during President Ronald Reagan’s term, but was saved, in part, because gun rights groups didn’t want its duties moving to another agency.
Under the Clinton administration, a group studying how to cut government waste suggested folding the ATF’s law enforcement activities into existing Justice Department agencies and putting the agency’s regulatory and revenue functions under the Internal Revenue Service. It also suggested folding the Drug Enforcement Administration into the FBI.
The idea of eliminating the ATF was proposed in 1993 by Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) after the siege at the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, where four agents and 82 members of the sect died. A year earlier, the agency — along with the FBI and U.S. marshals — was involved with the deadly standoff at Ruby Ridge, Idaho.
A decade later, the ATF moved from the Treasury Department into the Justice Department. Around that time, a group studying federal law enforcement found that the ATF’s missions to collect taxes and regulate private industry “did not contribute to effective enforcement of the nation’s gun and explosives laws.”
“ATF lacks a clear mission and sense of purpose because of the clash of disparate jurisdictional responsibilities,” said the report by the Commission on the Advancement of Federal Law Enforcement. “This small agency has for more than 30 years attempted to reconcile the irreconcilable. … The task of enforcing firearms and explosives laws can best be carried out in the FBI.”
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel