Political Animal


December 15, 2012 5:53 PM The ATF: A Portrait of an Impotent Bureau

By Samuel Knight

If there’s one federal agency that gun control advocates will want strengthened after Friday’s killings in Newtown, its the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

Will Congress actually do it, though?

Don’t bet your bulletproof vest fund on it. The ATF has been defanged for years. After the Beltway Sniper murders of 2003, Brent Kendall, writing for this publication, detailed how conservative lawmakers (both Republican and Democrat) have hamstrung the bureau, leaving it unable to punish the sketchy merchants who wind up arming the majority of criminals.

As Kendall described the ATF’s deficiencies:

Though it can shut a dealer down permanently—a fitting punishment only in egregious cases—ATF has no power to temporarily suspend a dealer’s license, or impose a fine—steps that might remind a dealer to be vigilant about sales rules. Nor can it audit a gun dealer more than once a year, 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.

Worse still, from a law-enforcement perspective, is the fact that federal law treats all record-keeping errors by gun dealers as, at most, misdemeanors—even in cases where ATF can prove that a dealer falsified records. This makes it practically impossible to bring gun dealers to court for record-keeping violations, since federal prosecutors, already burdened with more felony cases than they can litigate, usually don’t accept misdemeanor referrals.

Thus, people who grease the movement of guns across state lines - either willingly or recklessly - are more likely to go unpunished.

The dealer that serviced John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo (Malvo admitted to stealing a Bushmaster from the man) was eventually stripped of his license to sell firearms. But the majority of sketchy gun owners, however, seem to operate with impunity. A report published by a pro-gun control group using primarily ATF data found that in 2009, ten states supplied nearly half the 43,000 guns linked to crimes across state lines. And 40 percent of guns are sold without any sort of background check. Surely, a more robust ATF could help stem the flow of guns from states with lax laws.

However, the bureau won’t be granted any augmented power without an epic meltdown from the Right. The lion’s share of public scrutiny that the bureau has received in recent years has come from conservatives, mainly concerning the botched gun-walking operation “Fast and Furious.” Firearms that the ATF clumsily attempted to track inside of Mexico wound up being used in the murder of Border Patrol Agent Bryan Terry. There is much controversy about what actually happened. But the NRA has accused the Obama administration of conducting Fast and Furious as a sort of false flag against the second amendment (seriously).

So I’m sure that any bill that proposes to expand the ATF’s powers will just waltz through the Tea Party controlled House.

Samuel Knight is a freelance journalist living in DC and a former intern at the Washington Monthly.


  • schtick on December 15, 2012 8:04 PM:

    After the crap they pulled with Randy Weaver and Waco, I'm not so sure I'd trust them with much power either.

  • James E. Powell on December 15, 2012 8:42 PM:

    Why do we have an ATF, or for that matter a DEA? Why aren't all federal police powers in one agency?

    I can see, somewhat, the argument for a border patrol, but what benefit do we, the people, get from having multiple agencies?

  • clevergirl on December 15, 2012 9:09 PM:

    I'm sick of this defeatist crap.

    6 and 7 year olds. Shot 3 to 11 times.

    Shut up and get this done. Car = gun. Same rules.

  • Litterbox on December 16, 2012 1:51 AM:

    Lets not jump to conclusions just yet... So far, whats been reported, is that these guns were legally owned by the shooters mother. He apparently killed her and took the guns. All the gun laws in the world would not have prevented that or what came next. And on the issue of Car=gun, Im not sure what that meaning is other than equating crimes committed with a car to be similar to those with a gun??? If so, Im all in favor of banning cars because of the tens of thousands of deaths each year from DWI.

  • Neildsmith on December 16, 2012 8:33 AM:

    After 9/11 the government expanded the national security apparatus. We waged war on two countries and are busy assassinating terrorists around the world. Muslims in the US were subjected to harassment by the FBI and enemy combatants were denied due process. Meanwhile, real-life American terrorists shoot up schools, malls, theaters, etc with regularity. All those billions spent on Islamic terrorism... all the civil rights violated... all the death of innocents around the world and all it takes is one person working alone to do the job.

    The war on drugs has created an underclass of ex-cons, given the police powers to seize property, and it still hasn't solved the problem of addiction. Drugs, so I'm told, are cheap and readily available everywhere in America.

    Three strikes laws filled the prison system with habitual offenders for life and now we are questioning the wisdom of keeping people locked up. Oh - and we allegedly can't afford it either.

    So by all means let's figure out how to deal with this problem of mass shootings. So far, though, our track record is pretty dismal across the board.

  • esaud on December 16, 2012 9:04 AM:

    Litterbox - The shooter used a semi-automatic Bushmaster rifle. A simple ban on military weapons and large magazines would most definitely have helped.

    And rather than compare guns to cars, which are everywhere, we should be asking ourselves why virtually all other civilized countries are capable of effectively regulating gun safety. We are alone in this insanity. Like health care, there are dozens of successful models out there, but we are incapable of implementing them because of right wing stupidity.

    And I agree with the good Dr. K's blog today. It's time for Democrats to "whistle past the NRA". Wayne LaPierre, Ted Nugent, etc. are extremists of the worst sort, and in a sane world, it would be political suicide to go anywhere near them.

  • liam foote on December 16, 2012 9:47 AM:

    Not to quibble, but I believe that while such firearms were found at the scene of Agent Bryan Terry's death, there is no evidence that they were used in his murder.

  • berttheclock on December 16, 2012 10:17 AM:

    Unfortunately, just passing more laws may not be able to stop such as an event in Portland, Oregon. In the aftermath of the Clackamas Mall killings, some poster at the Oregonian wanted to know where the father of the shooter had been as the story said, the boy had been raised without a father. Ironically, there was another event not that far away from the mall, where, there was a father, who had been supposedly raising his eleven year old boy. They lived next to a church and the boy was well known at that church and at his elementary school for being a bully and a thief, however, little had been done by the father to rein in the young boy. The father happened to be an ex-con and the laws prohibited him from possessing any hand guns. However, his eleven year old boy was able to take his gun and use it in an attempted hi-jacking of a young woman in the church parking lot. Interesting, that following this, both father and son were arraigned in separate courts on charges. The boy for the attempted hi-jacking and the father on charges of being in violation of his parole and by leaving a weapon where a mimor could gain access to said weapon. The only fortunate part of this was the young woman in the failed attempt was not injured.

  • iyoumeweus on December 16, 2012 10:29 AM:

    1. Ban all assault weapons and concealed firearms.
    2. Limit clip and magazine size to hold four (4) bullets only.
    3. Enact a special bullet and firearm tax to be shared by Federal. State and Local governments for the purpose of: a) background checks, b) audit of gun dealers, c) pay for gun agents to provide oversight and d) to provide assistance to victims and families of shootings.
    4. Give the ATFE the power to: a) conduct unannounced audits at any time of all registered gun dealers, b) to temporarily suspend a gun dealerís license and impose fines and c) the deliberate falsification of gun and bullet sale records to be a felony.

  • berttheclock on December 16, 2012 10:54 AM:

    @iyoumeweus, while, I appreciate your suggestions and they are valid indeed, remember two things about the recent shootings. The killer of those at the elementary school had stolen the registered guns from his mother and the killer at the Clackamas Mall had stolen the AR-15 from a friend.

  • esaud on December 16, 2012 11:27 AM:

    It is starting to sound like the mother, who purchased all the guns, had a few screws loose, too. Perhaps under stricter standards, she should have been stopped from buying a dangerous weapon like her Bushmaster.

    I mean really, who in their right mind would want to own one of those?

    And all of the "yeah, but law X wouldn't have prevented incident Y" arguments? A law does not have to be 100% effective to still be effective.

  • Gorobei on December 17, 2012 1:53 PM:

    When I think about the regulation of firearms I tend to agree with the idea of using regulation of driving a car as a model.

    I'd take it a step further than has been listed above. Like cars, you should have to register (like cars) your guns and prove that they are in a safe place (inspection) on a regular basis. In order to qualify for ownership you should also have to carry liability insurance to cover any accidental injury or deaths committed with the weapons.

    Thus, market can help us to guns safer. Have a gun safe? You get a discount on your insurance. Buying hollowpoint ammunition? You need to upgrade your insurance or it can't be sold to you. I'd leave the details to people who are more familiar with the technology but this sort of attaching the RESPONSIBILITY to the RIGHT will go a long way toward ending the absurd fiction that takes place every day where people buy a gun in a state with lax laws and then "lose it" and it shows up being bought by criminals on the street four states away.

    If you think you're responsible enough to own a tool that is designed with the sole purpose of taking lives, then you need to demonstrate a commensurate level of responsibility in it's ownership. Thousands of gun owners already demonstrate this level of responsibility, it should be the minimum standard.