There has been a steady decline during the Clinton administration in the number of weapons-related criminal cases that the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) has turned over to federal prosecutors for legal action, according to a new study made public yesterday.

The study by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) at Syracuse University, which analyzes law enforcement data, said the number of ATF referrals to federal prosecutors has dropped by 44 percent since 1992, when there were 9,885 referrals. Last year, the agency charged with enforcing federal firearms laws referred 5,510 cases to federal prosecutors, according to TRAC. Most ATF referrals to federal prosecutors involve alleged weapons offenses.

It also said that until last year there had been a matching decline in the number of federal prosecutions of ATF weapons cases, which fell from 4,108 in 1992 to 2,165 in 1997. But in 1998, that trend was reversed with the prosecution of 2,710 ATF weapons cases, a 25 percent increase over the previous year, the report said.

The TRAC researchers, who analyzed data from the Justice Department, the Office of Personnel Management and ATF, said one reason there may be fewer criminal referrals is that ATF's work force is smaller now than it was earlier in the decade. The agency's total force has declined by 8 percent since 1992 and there has been an even sharper drop of 14 percent in the number of its criminal investigators. ATF had 2,072 criminal investigators in 1992 and 1,779 last year, according to the report.

The findings are likely to fuel the gun control debate in Congress, where opponents, such as the National Rifle Association, argue that there is no need for new gun control laws and that the administration should concentrate on enforcing existing laws.

Administration officials did not dispute the trend toward fewer federal prosecutions, but said part of this was due to a decision by ATF to concentrate more of its resources on complex investigations of major gun traffickers and less on individual firearms law violations.

A Justice Department spokeswoman, who declined to be identified, also disputed the accuracy of some of the numbers in the TRAC report. The report said that in 1998 there were 2,528 federal prosecutions under two frequently used federal firearms laws, but Justice Department records show that 5,876 defendants were prosecuted under those laws that year, she said.

She said the number of federal firearms violators who have received sentences of more than five years in prison has increased by more than 25 percent since 1992, reflecting ATF's decision to focus more on gun traffickers.

"There is a decline in those [firearms] charges, but it is not as dramatic as portrayed here," the spokeswoman said.

"The number of low-end federal offenders is down because the ATF is strapped for resources and made a conscious decision to focus on traffickers and because the states are doing a better job so we don't have to do those cases."

An ATF spokeswoman, who also did not want her name used, said the agency experienced a 20 percent reduction in field agents between 1993 and 1997, losing some of its most experienced agents to retirement. ATF is now aggressively hiring agents, she said, but it will take time to train them and get them in the field.

The ATF spokeswoman also said that statistics on prosecutions do not reflect all of the agency's activities, which in the 1990s have included major investigations of the bombings of the World Trade Center in New York and the federal building in Oklahoma City.