The lead federal agency responsible for tackling gun violence should be merged into the FBI to better protect public safety and reduce firearms crime, a liberal think tank with strong ties to the Obama administration said.
The Center for American Progress — after a two-year investigation and more than 50 interviews with people in both agencies — concluded that the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives is plagued by inadequate management, insufficient resources, burdensome restrictions and a lack of coordination. The center’s 182-page report, a copy of which was obtained by The Washington Post, is scheduled to be released Tuesday.
“We do not make the core recommendation of this report lightly and recognize that . . . this type of agency restructuring would be challenging and time-consuming,” said Arkadi Gerney, one of the report’s co-authors. “But the problem of gun violence in the United States warrants this kind of large-scale rethinking. With 33 people murdered with guns in the United States every day, it is time to think big about how best to fulfill the ATF’s mission to enforce gun laws and regulate the gun industry.”
The report comes seven weeks after B. Todd Jones, the first ATF director to be confirmed by the Senate, stepped down. It’s unclear when the agency will get a permanent leader. Before Jones, it went without a director for seven years.
Proposals to merge ATF with another agency have long been circulated, particularly by Republicans.
Thirty-five years ago, President Ronald Reagan said during his first presidential campaign that he wanted to abolish ATF and transfer its powers to other agencies. As recently as last year, Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.), former chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, introduced a bill to eliminate the agency and shift its responsibilities to the FBI and the Drug Enforcement Administration, calling ATF “a largely duplicative, scandal-
ridden agency that lacks a clear mission.”
Still, the recommendation from the Center for American Progress (CAP) is notable because of the group’s liberal leanings and connections to the Obama administration.
A spokesman for the Justice Department, which oversees ATF, said that the agency “supports ATF in its current form and believes Congress should fully fund the president’s budget request that will enhance ATF’s ability to carry out their important mission.”
In its report, the CAP cites a number of factors for ATF’s problems and asserts that the gun lobby has worked to keep it a weak stand-alone agency. It has done so, according to the report, by lobbying Congress to keep ATF “underresourced” and to attach provisions to appropriations bills, limiting its ability to do its job.
“Particularly in the past two decades, the gun lobby led by the National Rifle Association, or NRA, has sought to enforce an iron grip over Washington, using both its significant financial resources and its ability to mobilize its members to coerce and cajole Congress into doing its bidding,” the report says.
An NRA spokeswoman disputed that charge, saying that ATF’s problems are tied to the current administration.
“The Obama administration has only contributed to ATF’s dysfunction by politicizing the agency to implement its gun-control agenda,” said NRA spokeswoman Jennifer Baker. “Regardless of where ATF is located, the reality is that nothing will change until we have a president who respects the Second Amendment.”
ATF’s history, particularly over the past two decades, has been plagued with controversies, including the 1993 raid in Waco, Tex.; the funding of an expensive headquarters; and the botched gun-tracking operation known as “Fast and Furious.” Those controversies have put the agency “squarely in the cross hairs of congressional scrutiny” and created more opportunities for the gun lobby to debilitate the agency, according to the CAP report.
The center said that ATF also suffers from “an identity crisis.” On the one hand, agency officials see themselves as the federal violent-crime police, combating gang and drug-related crimes. On the other, ATF is a regulatory agency, responsible for overseeing firearms and explosives commerce.
The report says that ATF was never designed to be a police agency and has channeled its scarce resources away from its regulatory side.
Some supporters of ATF are cool to the notion of a merger.
“The two agencies are wired differently,” former ATF director Bradley A. Buckles, who oversaw the agency from 1999 to 2004, said in an interview. “The firearms and explosives laws deal with violent crime, which is in the first instance a state and local problem. The FBI, in contrast, is charged largely with crimes of federal concern — terrorism, national security and international and national organized crime.
“The idea that the firearms laws could be more successfully carried out in the FBI is largely misplaced,” he said.
Jones, who announced in March that he would step down 20 months after his confirmation, said that it’s better to keep law enforcement diffuse rather than consolidating policing and regulatory powers in one agency.
“As much as the ATF gets beat up, merging the agency with the primary responsibility of enforcing the Gun Control Act while respecting the Second Amendment with the agency that has the primary responsibility for national security would be a very dangerous thing,” said Jones, who left to become chief disciplinary officer for the National Football League.
The CAP’s Gerney, however, said that the obstacles could be overcome and would be less difficult to navigate than the severe budget limitations and political environment that ATF operates in.
“The difficulties posed by successfully merging ATF into the FBI are certainly no more daunting than the challenges ATF currently faces in attempting to combat violent gun crime, identify and apprehend illegal firearms trafficking networks, and regulate the gun industry,” Gerney said.