ATF forces shrink in era of gun vi­o­lence Agency be­comes po­lit­i­cal foot­ball

The Washington Times Weekly - - Politics - BY JEFF MORDOCK

An epi­demic of mass shoot­ings has put a spotlight on the Bureau of Al­co­hol, To­bacco, Firearms and Ex­plo­sives, re­veal­ing an agency that is un­der­staffed, un­der­funded and treated as a po­lit­i­cal punch­ing bag on both the right and the left.

The ATF finds it­self at a cross­roads. With 300 agents ex­pected to re­tire in 2018 and 2019, the rate of new hires isn’t keep­ing up and the agency is short-staffed for in­ves­ti­gat­ing gun crimes and polic­ing deal­ers.

Some law­mak­ers want to abol­ish the agency.

The Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion and Congress so far have ig­nored the brew­ing cri­sis at the ATF, leav­ing it lan­guish­ing with­out a per­ma­nent direc­tor and chip­ping away at its bud­get. That needs to change if Congress wants to get se­ri­ous about tack­ling the na­tion’s gun prob­lems, said Ken­neth E. Mel­son, for­mer act­ing ATF direc­tor.

“If they are re­ally con­cerned, Congress would give ATF the re­sources to pre­vent and re­spond to mass shoot­ings, but ATF is a po­lit­i­cal foot­ball,” he said.

The ATF is one of the small­est fed­eral agen­cies with fewer in­ves­ti­ga­tors than the Las Ve­gas Po­lice Depart­ment. It em­ploy­ees about 5,000 peo­ple, in­clud­ing 2,600 fed­eral agents. Those num­bers have re­mained largely stag­nant since 2001, even though gun deaths have sky­rock­eted 34% dur­ing the same pe­riod.

Even the bureau con­cedes it is strug­gling. In its 2020 bud­get re­quest, the bureau said its “un­prece­dented” in­creased work­load, out­dated tech­nol­ogy and staffing short­ages have put the pub­lic at risk.

“The growth of vi­o­lent gun crime is an ex­ter­nal chal­lenge that has strained ATF’s abil­ity to re­spond to re­quests for as­sis­tance to ad­dress the needs of the na­tion’s cities and cit­i­zens most af­fected by this vi­o­lence,” the bureau wrote, adding that “re­quests for ser­vices and sup­port con­tinue to ex­ceed our abil­ity to re­spond.”

Staffing lev­els are ex­pected to dwin­dle over the next few years. In the 2018 cal­en­dar year, 172 agents re­tired but only 156 agents were hired, ac­cord­ing to in­ter­nal es­ti­mates ob­tained by The Wash­ing­ton Times. Through the end of this Septem­ber, 52 agents had been hired and re­tire­ments are ex­pected to track at the same pace as 2018.

An ATF spokes­woman de­clined to com­ment on the re­tire­ment num­bers. She said a de­tailed plan to ad­dress at­tri­tion would be “merely spec­u­la­tion.”

But the ATF’s bud­get re­quest re­vealed that 471 ATF agents, or roughly 17%, are 50 or older. The manda­tory re­tire­ment age for fed­eral law en­force­ment of­fi­cers is 57.

“Stronger gun laws are not go­ing to help if you don’t have agents to en­force the gun laws,” Mr. Mel­son said. “We need to re­source the ATF suf­fi­ciently to en­force the gun laws that we have.”

The Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion does not ap­pear com­mit­ted to strength­en­ing the agency. Last year, the White House pro­posed trans­fer­ring the ATF’s al­co­hol and to­bacco re­spon­si­bil­i­ties to the Trea­sury Depart­ment. It also pro­posed cut­ting the bud­get of the Jus­tice Depart­ment, which over­sees the ATF, by 2%. At the time, then­act­ing ATF Direc­tor Thomas Bran­don said belt-tight­en­ing would elim­i­nate 377 po­si­tions from the bureau.

“ATF won’t be as able to do what it can do today,” Mr. Bran­don told Congress. “You hear peo­ple say to trim the fat. Well, then we trimmed into mus­cle. Now we’re trim­ming into bone.”

The Jus­tice Depart­ment re­buffed re­quests for more agents, a source fa­mil­iar with the mat­ter told The Wash­ing­ton Times.

A Jus­tice Depart­ment of­fi­cial dis­puted the claim, say­ing the depart­ment “fully sup­ported” the ATF’s pro­pos­als and At­tor­ney Gen­eral Wil­liam Barr per­son­ally re­quested that Congress ex­pand the agency’s abil­ity to in­ves­ti­gate gun vi­o­lence.

For­mer Deputy At­tor­ney Gen­eral Rod Rosen­stein also dis­missed re­ports of ten­sion be­tween the ATF and the Jus­tice Depart­ment.

“ATF is an es­sen­tial Depart­ment of Jus­tice agency,” he said. “ATF is the cen­tral pil­lar of the fed­eral govern­ment’s ef­forts to com­bat vi­o­lent crime. Ev­ery U.S. at­tor­ney who makes re­duc­ing vi­o­lent crime a pri­or­ity re­lies heav­ily on ATF’s agents and its part­ner­ships with lo­cal po­lice depart­ments. ATF played a pri­mary role in help­ing to re­duce vi­o­lent crime in Bal­ti­more from 2007 to 2015, and it is do­ing the same in many other cities.”

But Mr. Mel­son said Jus­tice Depart­ment brass did not re­spect the ATF dur­ing the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion. He said his coun­ter­parts at other law en­force­ment agen­cies had nice plac­ards on their desks dur­ing one meet­ing with top Jus­tice Depart­ment of­fi­cials. His plac­ard said “Depart­ment of Trea­sury,” even though the ATF was moved out of that depart­ment 10 years ear­lier, he said.

He said the Jus­tice Depart­ment can do more to pro­mote the ATF.

“The fu­ture of the ATF de­pends a lot on the lead­er­ship in the Jus­tice Depart­ment, and if you don’t have an at­tor­ney gen­eral talk­ing about the role of the ATF, it might at­ro­phy,” he said. “And if you don’t have a con­firmed direc­tor that can go to Congress and talk about bud­get and reg­u­la­tory is­sues, the ATF will not progress. The sta­tus quo will re­main the same.”

David Chip­man, a for­mer ATF agent who works for Gif­fords, a group ad­vo­cat­ing tougher gun con­trol laws, blames the firearms lobby. He said it worked for years to un­der­cut the ATF’s bud­get.

“We all agree gun vi­o­lence is a sig­nif­i­cant pub­lic safety threat, so why is the ATF the size that it is?” he said. “That is largely be­cause the gun lobby has been con­cerned about an ef­fec­tive and ag­gres­sive ATF, and their in­flu­ence over leg­is­la­tors has kept the ATF in­ef­fec­tual, at least bud­get­wise.”

One of the big­gest prob­lems fac­ing the ATF is the lack of lead­er­ship, an­a­lysts say. The ATF has had a per­ma­nent direc­tor for only four of the past 13 years. The gun lobby pushed in 2006 to make the ATF direc­tor a Se­nate-con­firmed po­si­tion.

“All of th­ese fed­eral law en­force­ment agen­cies need to have some per­ma­nence,” said Don­ald Mi­halek, ex­ec­u­tive direc­tor of the Fed­eral Law En­force­ment Of­fi­cers As­so­ci­a­tion. “With­out that per­ma­nence, you have agen­cies that are float­ing with no di­rec­tion and the act­ing direc­tor tends to be manag­ing rather than lead­ing. The ATF direc­tor has be­come one of the most po­lit­i­cal po­si­tions in fed­eral law en­force­ment, and it shouldn’t be.”

Mr. Bran­don, who served as act­ing direc­tor since 2015, re­tired in April. Pres­i­dent Trump has nom­i­nated Chuck Can­ter­bury, who heads the Fra­ter­nal Or­der of Po­lice, to lead the agency. But the Se­nate hasn’t sched­uled a vote and Mr. Can­ter­bury sparred with Repub­li­cans dur­ing a con­tentious con­fir­ma­tion hear­ing.

Mr. Can­ter­bury an­gered Repub­li­cans with eva­sive an­swers about his views on gun rights. A frus­trated Sen. John Kennedy, Louisiana Re­pub­li­can, said he might not sup­port the nom­i­na­tion.

Po­lit­i­cal in­ter­fer­ence has al­ways had an out­sized in­flu­ence on the ATF, es­pe­cially com­pared with its sis­ter agen­cies such as the FBI and Drug En­force­ment Ad­min­is­tra­tion. The gun lobby and its Re­pub­li­can al­lies have claimed the ATF is out to con­fis­cate legally owned weapons while Democrats have as­sailed the agency for not do­ing enough to pre­vent gun vi­o­lence.

“The ATF has al­ways been a stepchild com­pared to the other agen­cies,” Mr. Mel­son said. “It has been one of the most, if not most un­der­ap­pre­ci­ated fed­eral law en­force­ment agen­cies in the Depart­ment of Jus­tice. It’s al­ways caught be­tween the gun rights ad­vo­cates and those who want to add more re­stric­tions to the pos­ses­sion and use of guns.”

Pres­i­dents Rea­gan and Obama pro­posed elim­i­nat­ing the ATF. Rep. F. James Sensen­bren­ner Jr., Wis­con­sin Re­pub­li­can, in­tro­duced leg­is­la­tion to abol­ish the bureau while the left-lean­ing Cen­ter for Amer­i­can Progress ar­gued that it should be folded into the FBI.

Arkadi Ger­ney, who man­aged for­mer New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg’s anti-gun ini­tia­tives, said the idea of mov­ing the ATF into the FBI has merit.

“The ATF is an agency that is an al­so­ran play­ing sec­ond fid­dle to other law en­force­ment agen­cies,” he said. “It has a dif­fi­cult mis­sion, but it doesn’t have the re­sources, lead­er­ship or po­lit­i­cal stand­ing to be suc­cess­ful.

“I think the ATF can do a re­ally good job,” he said. “I think the ques­tion is: Is it more likely that is go­ing to hap­pen on its own, or might we get there faster by tak­ing the agency and putting its peo­ple in the FBI? My gut is the lat­ter.” Mr. Mel­son dis­agreed. “I think it needs to stand on its own,” he said. “Th­ese agents are tremen­dous, and they get re­sults. If you put them into the FBI, it is just go­ing to make the FBI too big and too ex­pan­sive.”

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Agents with the Bureau of Al­co­hol, To­bacco, Firearms and Ex­plo­sives are re­tir­ing at a faster rate than are agents be­ing hired. Fed­eral of­fi­cials have ex­pressed lit­tle in­ter­est in strength­en­ing the force, even with a spotlight on com­bat­ing mass shoot­ings.

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