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Gun control proposal from Biden needs long-overdue ATF leadership to succeed

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When Vice President Joe Biden delivers his recommendations on gun control to President Obama on Tuesday, any number of things may be included. The White House has signaled that a ban on military-style assault weapons and a limit on high-capacity ammunition magazines will be part of the proposal. Universal background checks are also expected to be included. And after meetings with everyone from hunting groups to the video game industry, other measures could be proposed.

But one thing that simply must be part of any set of recommendations is to give the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms — the supposed regulators of the gun industry — permanent leadership. Several days after the horrific shooting in Newtown, Conn., The Post ran a story with this remarkable news: The ATF has not had a permanent leader in six years, and the interim one they have now is juggling another job — in Minneapolis. B. Todd Jones, the interim acting director (talk about a title with little in the way of teeth), only works part-time at the agency while he also holds down his job as U.S. Attorney in Minneapolis.

National Public Radio followed up with a similar story Friday, examining how the agency’s hands have been tied. Funding has been relatively flat. Central databases and inspections are restricted. And the lack of leadership is preventing the sort of long-term projections essential in the running of any organization. President Obama has nominated a permanent replacement for Jones, but his nomination has been stalled for two years because of opposition from the gun lobby, The Post reported.

This is absurd. Whatever fallout the agency may be experiencing from the Fast and Furious operation, in which ATF lost track of about 2,000 guns during an effort to trace weapons to the highest levels of Mexican gun cartels, does not change the fact that it is apparently in serious need of permanent leadership. No organization can function properly for that long without someone in place who has the kind of ownership needed to effectively fight for the bureau’s ability to do its job. Decisions get put on hold. Long-term strategy gets shelved. Budgets and resources get short shrift.

And in the ATF’s case, things could slip through the cracks. The current director is not only interim — and acting — but also part-time, with another demanding job half way across the country to do. However capable Jones or his deputies may be, staying on top of the resources and needs of the bureau, not to mention trying to actually improve its effectiveness rather than just keep things running smoothly, seems to me like it would be a nearly impossible task.

Some are sure to scoff that more intervention and regulation by a government agency are not necessarily the answer to the gun problem this country faces. But at the most basic level, shouldn’t the bureau charged with doing this work at least have the leadership in place to run it as efficiently and effectively as possible? A multi-year absence of a permanent leader, the lack of a full-time one for such an important organization, and the two-year delay in approving or denying a nomination that’s already in process simply cannot continue.

Jena McGregor is a columnist for the Washington Post’s On Leadership section.

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