- Barack Obama’s executive action would be enforced largely by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF).
- The ATF has been financially gutted over the years and despite the call for 200 more agents that would only replace those about to retire.
- 25% of ATF agents are qualified for retirement with another 20% reaching eligibility by 2018.
- Congress will most likely vote down any effort to further fund the ATF.
The beleaguered federal agency charged with bringing to life much of Barack ’s new roster of gun controls faces an uphill task to deliver meaningful change.
At the heart of the president’s executive action was a proposal to reinforce the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives () with 200 new agents and investigators.
Though badly needed, the extra staff would be just enough to keep pace with the number of veteran agents who are eligible or almost eligible for retirement in the coming years, according to attrition estimates from a 2014 government report. And the personnel concerns are just one of the longstanding challenges the agency faces.
For decades, restraints, inadequate funding, impotent leadership and a lack of political constituency have stymied the agency from carrying out its core mission. Two years ago, a review by the Government Accountability Office found the agency lacked the resources needed to adequately track the outcomes of thousands of investigations involving improperly purchased firearms despite such cases being a “top priority”.
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The same report identified serious personnel concerns, noting that ’s staffing was at its lowest level in nearly a decade, the result of a four-year hiring freeze and stagnant funding that “did not keep pace with the cost of employee salaries and benefits”.
currently has 624 industry operations investigators in the field, who are tasked with conducting compliance inspections of more than 140,000 federally licensed firearms dealers in the US, the agency said. In broadening the definition of who should be classified as a gun dealer, ’s plan would likely add many thousands more to that total.
Now the agency is projected to lose a number of veteran agents who are near or already eligible for retirement.
“ is facing a reduction in its number of special agents, who according to management officials, are critical to carrying out its mission of reducing violent crime,’’ the report stated.
More than a quarter of ’s special agents qualified for retirement in 2013 and an additional 20% will become eligible through 2018, the report found.
The president asked Congress to fund 200 more agents and investigators to cope with the extra work, but the staffing figures make clear that even if Congress were to agree, the chances are that the workforce will stand still at best.
On Monday, the US attorney general, Loretta Lynch, told reporters that providing with the additional resources is crucial piece of the plan. “We hope that Congress will see the wisdom of supporting this,” she said.
But that already seems unlikely. Republican lawmakers and presidential candidates were quick to condemn the president’s executive actions.
House speaker Paul Ryan accused the president of trampling on the second amendment. “No matter what President says, his word does not trump the second amendment,” Ryan said in a statement, adding that the measures would be challenged in court.
Presidential candidate Marco Rubio pledged to repeal the plan if elected. “On my first day, it’s gone,” he said.
Hamstrung by the industry it’s supposed to regulateThe is charged with regulating America’s multibillion-dollar gun industry. But many say it is the industry that dominates the agency.
“If you can strangle the chief agency charged with carrying out gun laws, it’s the equivalent of not having those laws in place,” said Robert Spitzer, author of The Politics of Gun Control and a political science professor at the State University of New York. “It’s a backdoor way to reduce gun regulations.”
Critics of the , in particular the nation’s largest gun organization, the National Rifle Association, have successfully lobbied for laws and regulations that have effectively “crippled” the agency, Spitzer said.
Spitzer pointed to the series of “riders” attached to annual appropriations legislation at the behest of the gun lobby, he said, that have effectively hobbled the agency from completing even core functions of its mission.
One rider, for example, restricts the from consolidating and computerizing its data in a modern manner. Another imposes prohibitions on its ability to regulate and oversee firearms dealers.
“ is the ‘whipping boy’ of the gun community,” Spitzer said. “And that’s how it’s been for decades.”
The has long drawn the ire of conservative lawmakers and the gun lobby. Wayne LaPierre, the executive vice-president of the NRA, once referred to agents as “jack-booted thugs” and compared them to Nazis, prompting former US president George HW Bush, a lifetime member, to resign from the organization in outrage.
In 1980, Ronald Reagan pledged during his first presidential campaign to abolish . More than 35 years later, such calls are still circulating. Last year, Representative Jim Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin called the agency an “ affront to the second amendment ” when he reintroduced legislation that would abolish the and transfer its core functions to other agencies.
There is now fresh concern that some conservative members of Congress would retaliate against ’s actions by trying to strip funding from the bureau.
“In the past, at times, when Congress didn’t like something that was proposed in gun legislation or regulation, they actually took money from the bureau’s budget and really hurt them more than anything else,” said Joseph Vince, a former special agent and a partner at the Maryland-based consulting firm Crime Gun Solutions. “That’s a possibility and that could occur.”
Comparisons have been drawn between the and family-planning organization Planned Parenthood, which has periodically had its federal funding threatened by conservative members of Congress amid controversy.
The agency’s reputation was further imperiled after the botched gun operation, known as “Fast and Furious”, when agents lost track of nearly 2,000 guns, two of which were recovered at the scene of a murdered US border patrol agent.
But many of ’s measures outlined in an emotional speech on Tuesday, including his proposal to hire 200 agents and investigators, will require funding increases that the Republican-led Congress is almost certain to deny.
“Whenever the tries to move the ball forward and better enforce the laws and regulate the industry, you often see a response from some members of Congress to try to prevent them from doing so,” said Chelsea Parsons, vice-president for guns and crime policy at the Center for American Progress (CAP), a left-leaning thinktank inWashington.
Yet Parsons said the president’s endorsement of the agency and its mission sends a clear message.
“This is an agency that has historically been bruised and battered in Congress, and has had to fight and scrape for every resource that it gets,” Parsons said. “Having the support of the administration at the highest level is certainly a very strong statement.”