MARTINSBURG, W.Va. — If there was one moment that summed up the current state of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, it was when the floor at the agency’s gun-tracing center caved in a couple of years ago under the weight of paper.
The accident was not entirely accidental.
The gun lobby, led by the National Rifle Association, has for years systematically blocked plans to modernize the agency’s paper-based weapons-tracing system with a searchable database. As a result, records of gun sales going back decades are stored in boxes stacked seven high, waiting to be processed, against every wall.
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“We had a lady pushing a cart, and the floor just gave way,” recalled Tyson J. Arnold, who runs the tracing center, tapping the new, steel-braced deck with his shoe.
Now the long-suffering ATF (somehow the “explosives” never made it into the abbreviation) is at the center of President Joe Biden’s plans to push back at what he has called “the international embarrassment” of gun violence in America.
As he laid out his expansive vision for the nation on Wednesday night, Biden once again called on Congress to expand background checks and ban assault weapons. But given the abiding power of the gun lobby, his immediate hopes lie in a more limited list of executive actions that will ultimately rely on the effectiveness of the ATF, the federal agency tasked with enforcing the country’s gun laws and executive actions.
Biden has ordered a ban on the homemade-firearm kits known as “ghost guns,” a prohibition the ATF will have to enforce. To help set gun policy, he has charged the ATF with undertaking the first comprehensive federal survey of weapons-trafficking patterns since 2000. And to lead the bureau into the future, Biden has nominated a fiery former ATF agent and gun-control activist, David Chipman.
First, though, the bureau will have to overcome its past. In the 48 years since its mission shifted primarily to firearms enforcement, it has been weakened by relentless assaults from the NRA that have, in the view of many, made the ATF appear to be an agency engineered to fail.
At the NRA’s instigation, Congress has limited the bureau’s budget. It has imposed crippling restrictions on the collection and use of gun-ownership data, including a ban on requiring basic inventories of weapons from gun dealers. It has limited unannounced inspections of gun dealers. Fifteen years ago, the NRA successfully lobbied to make the director’s appointment subject to Senate confirmation — and has subsequently helped block all but one nominee from taking office.
“ATF has all this potential, and they do a lot of good things, but it’s time somebody asked, ‘What is it going to take for us to succeed rather than just treading water?’” said Thomas Brandon, who served as the bureau’s interim director from 2015 until retiring in 2019.
In the weeks after a series of mass shootings prompted calls for action, The New York Times interviewed two dozen people who had either run the ATF or tracked its decline. Their consensus was that the agency needed to be restructured, modernized, given adequate resources and managed in a more proactive and aggressive way.
“What’s been done to the ATF is systemic, it’s intentional and it’s a huge problem,” said T. Christian Heyne, vice president of policy at Brady, a gun control advocacy group that has proposed a plan for executive action centered on enforcement by the agency.
The ATF has also been hindered from within. The bureau’s culture, several people said, prioritizes high-visibility operations, like responding to episodes of violence at the racial-justice protests across the country last summer, over its more mundane core mission of inspecting and licensing gun dealers. That mission took a major step back in 2020 during the coronavirus pandemic, when annual inspections nose-dived by more than 50% even as gun sales surged to record levels.
To say the ATF is outgunned is an understatement. Staffing levels have remained essentially flat for two decades, with the number of inspectors who are responsible for overseeing gun dealers actually decreasing by about 20% since 2001. The number of firearms sold over the same period has skyrocketed: more than 23 million guns in 2020, shattering the previous record of 15.7 million in 2016.
“The ATF is the only federal organization that is basically the same size it was in 1972,” said Dale Armstrong, a retired 28-year veteran of the agency who ran its national gun-trafficking unit.
The Biden administration, for all its talk about supporting the bureau, has yet to commit to a significant increase in resources, proposing a 5% bump in ATF funding in this year’s discretionary budget. That is a far more modest increase than those given to many other agencies, like the Education Department, that Biden sees as instrumental to his agenda.
“Let me put it this way,” said Thomas L. Chittum, a three-decade veteran of the bureau who now oversees all of its field operations. “It’s not easy being ATF.”
Wayne LaPierre, who has led the NRA for three decades, has pursued a legislative strategy that eroded the ATF’s authority.
In 2003, the NRA helped draft the so-called Tiahrt amendment — named for its sponsor, former Rep. Todd Tiahrt, R-Kan. — which put severe restrictions on the ATF’s ability to share gun-tracing data. It also requires the FBI to destroy most gun purchase records within 24 hours after a background check, and it blocks the ATF from requiring dealers to provide records of their inventories.
The external pressures have been compounded by tensions stemming from the ATF’s dual personality as a law enforcement and regulatory agency responsible for monitoring the nation’s 75,000 shops, pawn brokers, manufacturers and importers that buy and sell guns.
A majority of ATF field employees are 2,600 gun-and-badge special agents who work on gun possession and trafficking cases, and join the FBI and local law enforcement in larger drug and criminal investigations.
But there is another, less glamorous side to the agency, one that gun safety groups see as equally if not more important to ATF’s mission — an unarmed civilian workforce of 728 field inspectors who have often felt neglected, maligned and marginalized.
Although only a small percentage of weapons dealers are corrupt, the bad actors do a lot of damage — with 1.2% of gun dealers responsible for more than 57% of the guns later traced to crimes, according to bureau estimates.
Some gun shops, the ones deemed at lowest risk for illegal activity, are often not inspected for seven or eight years. Some can go without an inspection for a decade. Locations in “source” areas, places known to be the origin of trafficked guns, are often inspected more frequently, at least once every two or three years.
Even in a good year, the inspections cover fewer than 15% of licensed dealers, and the lack of consistent oversight has real-world consequences. A 2009 report by the Congressional Research Service found that “a substantial percentage of recovered firearms cannot be successfully traced for several reasons including poor record-keeping.”
The mere presence of a permanent leader, like Chipman, has the potential to be transformative, former agency officials said.
“I was never the president’s guy, and being the president’s person means people are less likely to push back against you,” said Brandon, the former interim director. “It gives you a lot more street cred.”
Chipman served as a special agent during a 22-year ATF career that ended in 2010, first in the bureau’s hectic Detroit office, then in stints working the Interstate 95 corridor, the country’s biggest conduit for illegal firearms, and at bureau headquarters. There, he told the website The Trace, he observed “the catastrophic downsides of the gun lobby efforts to block the ATF from modernizing.”
Gabrielle Giffords, the former Arizona congresswoman who became a gun-control activist after being severely wounded in an assassination attempt, began pushing, along with other gun safety groups, for Chipman’s hiring in mid-November, shortly after Biden was elected, according to several people with knowledge of the situation.
But for weeks after the inauguration, the White House and its allies in the Senate stalled, in part to spare gun-friendly Democrats, like Sen. Joe Manchin III of West Virginia, from a tough vote when they were focused on the pandemic and spending bills.
The shootings that left 18 people dead in Atlanta and Boulder, Colorado, in mid-March changed that.
Soon afterward, Giffords wrote to Biden, asking him to meet with her to discuss Chipman. By that time, Biden’s chief of staff, Ron Klain, had thrown his support behind Chipman, and Biden later told Giffords that he was prepared “to fight” for the nomination, according to an administration official with knowledge of the exchange.
Almost immediately, the NRA announced plans to spend $2 million to defeat Chipman, cutting an ad targeting Sen. Susan Collins, a moderate Republican from Maine.
The Chipman pick “is poking people in the eye,” said Joshua Powell, a former top official at the NRA turned critic of its leadership. “I think the president would be better served by appointing a more apolitical person and building more bridges to bipartisanship.”
Chipman’s confirmation — the Senate hearing is expected to take place in late May — is anything but certain, with one West Wing official saying his “absolute ceiling” in the Senate was 51 or 52 yes votes. Manchin, a critical vote, has said he is favorable to Chipman, and administration officials insist that there is no reason to create a Plan B if his nomination founders.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
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