A small gesture on gun safety

Wednesday, February 2, 2011; 8:20 PM

MANY PRESIDENTS, fearful of alienating the powerful gun lobby, have neglected the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF). Funding requests are often skimpy, making it that much more difficult for the emaciated agency to crack down on illegal sales and trafficking of firearms.

The Obama administration was headed in this direction in mid-December, just weeks before the Arizona shootings that took the lives of six people and injured 13 others, including Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.). As The Post's James V. Grimaldi and Sari Horwitz reported, the administration contemplated reducing the ATF's budget by some 13 percent - a $160 million cut that would have brought the agency's budget to $1.09 billion and put in jeopardy key programs.

The administration wisely - and in this political climate, bravely - appears to have had a change of heart. "As part of the president's commitment to strengthening core law enforcement and homeland security functions - even as we make tough choices across the government - the 2012 budget includes robust support for Southwest border security, including an increase above current funding levels for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives," according to Margaret L. Reilly, a spokeswoman at the Office of Management and Budget. In plain English: The administration is promising to increase the ATF's budget beyond the $1.13 billion currently included in the 2011 continuing resolution. OMB declined to provide the exact dollar amount.

The administration, of course, will not have the last word, and lawmakers may still target the agency for reductions. They should not. Chipping away at the agency's modest budget would do little to reduce the deficits that continue to imperil the country's financial health, but it could have serious consequences for the effort to ensure that only law-abiding citizens get their hands on lethal weapons.

Because of federal hiring rules, for example, ATF employees brought on most recently to stanch the flow of U.S. guns used by Mexican drug cartels to murder thousands of their compatriots would probably face layoffs if the agency is further squeezed. A budget reduction also could cut into efforts to require firearms dealers in border states to report multiple sales of the kind of semiautomatic long guns favored by the cartels.

Refusing to further gut the ATF is an important, but ultimately small, gesture. Assault weapons and related accessories, including the kind of high-capacity magazine used in the shootings just outside Tucson, should be banned; the gun show loophole for background checks should be closed. We hope the president's course correction on the ATF is but the first of many steps to combat the rash of gun violence that has for too long afflicted this country and its neighbor to the south.

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