ATF's oversight limited in face of gun lobby

By Sari Horwitz and James V. Grimaldi
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, October 26, 2010; 12:12 AM

MARTINSBURG, W.VA. -- Trucks filled with boxes of gun-sales records pull up almost daily to a one-story brick building nestled in the hills outside this blue-collar town. Inside, workers armed with Scotch tape and magnifying glasses huddle over their desks, trying to decipher pieces of paper to trace the paths of guns used in crimes.

The National Tracing Center is the only place in the nation authorized to trace gun sales. Here, researchers with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives make phone calls and pore over handwritten records from across the country to track down gun owners. In contrast with such state-of-the-art, 21st-century crime-fighting techniques as DNA matching and digital fingerprint analysis, gun tracing is an antiquated, laborious process done mostly by hand. The government is prohibited from putting gun ownership records into an easily accessible format, such as a searchable computer database.

For decades, the National Rifle Association has lobbied successfully to block all attempts at such computerization, arguing against any national registry of firearm ownership.

"Those who wonder what motivates American gun owners should understand that perhaps only one word in the English language so boils their blood as 'registration,' and that word is 'confiscation,' " according to an NRA fact sheet.

Concerns about government regulation of gun ownership have limited the resources available to the ATF, led to strict regulatory restrictions and left the agency without leadership, according to interviews with dozens of former and current ATF officials and examination of thousands of pages of internal documents. The agency still has about the same number of agents it had nearly four decades ago: 2,500. The firearms bureau inspects only a fraction of the nation's 60,000 retail gun dealers, taking as much as eight years between visits to stores. By law, the ATF cannot require dealers to conduct a physical inventory to determine whether any guns have been lost or stolen.

The ATF is supposed to regulate the gun industry, but many within the bureau say it is the industry that dominates the agency. Unlike the FBI, the Drug Enforcement Administration, the Secret Service or the U.S. Marshals, the ATF must contend with a powerful lobby that watches its every move and fights its attempts to gain resources and regulatory power.

This year's appropriations bill for several key law enforcement agencies reveals the limits imposed by Congress on the ATF. For the FBI, there are 19 lines of congressional direction. For the DEA, there are 10. For the ATF, there are 87 lines, including the requirement to keep the gun-tracing database hidden from the public.

"We're a political football," said James Cavanaugh, who recently retired as special agent in charge of the ATF's Nashville office after a 30-year career.

The NRA, which has about 4 million members, said its work over the years pushing legislation in Congress has been designed to protect the constitutional rights of gun owners and has not hampered law enforcement.

The ATF "should focus their efforts on prosecuting bad people and not harassing gun dealers and, in a lot of cases, gun owners," said Chris W. Cox, executive director of the NRA Institute for Legislative Action. "The only reason to register products is either to tax 'em or to take 'em."

Gun tracers 'overwhelmed'

The ATF allowed The Washington Post a rare visit to its secure tracing center in Martinsburg, about 90 miles from Washington, providing insight into an archaic process that Cavanaugh likens to a "horse and buggy."

Tracing is an invaluable tool for law enforcement. ATF researchers at the center answer more than 300,000 queries a year from police who recover guns at crime scenes and want to know where they came from.

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