ATF unchained

by Hemang Sharma


The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms is the federal law enforcement agency staffing about 2,500 agents tasked with regulating national-scale offenses relating to the three materials that comprise its name.


Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms! No, I’m not describing my shopping list around the 4th of July. I speak of The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco,and Firearms, a name that is screamed at almost every been-there-heard-that debate between pundits at almost every media outlet that succeeds every mass shooting in America. We often hear the talking heads complain how the good people over at Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms should do their darn jobs of enforcing existing gun laws and keep guns and thugs separated.


Now, most people don’t hear about the ATF in the news nearly as much as they hear about the FBI due to the extremely large set of duties the FBI has, as opposed to the ATF which is very specific in its tasks. They manage to stay out of the news, both in their accomplishments and in scandals, except for an occasional gunrunning sting that goes wrong and they get wrongfully blamed for it.


The reason the good people over at ATF cannot accomplish everything that they are tasked with is because they have very limited powers. Yes, as the nation’s premier federal law enforcement agency tasked with regulating national-scale offenses relating to the three materials that comprise its name, it is a sad truth that the agency really has been crippled due to legislative bureaucracy until recently.


Let’s visit the legislative strangling that the Congress has bestowed upon the ATF that directly affect its functioning. 


No federal database of weapons sold legally:

According to the New York Times the ATF has been barred from maintaining a central database of all the legal guns sold in the United States. So, in perspective, the nation’s go-to guys to address the issue of illegal sales of weapons are explicitly told according to federal laws that they cannot maintain a database, so that the illegal and criminal transactions can be traced back.  Like they show us in TV shows like Law and Order: Special Victim’s Unit, any local and state agency that needs to trace an illegal weapon and can simply call the ATF’s devoted agents is not remotely even close to reality.



ATF can’t mandate gun-sellers to keep records:

Now, I’m not saying that federal agencies are nearly as effective in real life as they are shown on TV, but at least the procedural premise is correct. What ends up happening is that when the ATF needs to locate a gun source, their agents must begin at the top; call the manufacturer, who would then tally-up their binders full of bullets and reach out to the wholesaler, then from the long list of retailers will one shop finally be traced out, who may or may not have any proof of purchase left for the ATF to work with.  According to the Washington Post, the ATF can not only themselves not maintain such a database, they can not even require retailers to carry inventories due to a revoltingly irresponsible amendment called the Tiahrt Amendment, named after it’s Republican from Kansas crafter.


Lack of an ATF Director:

Yes, there has been more than six years since the ATF has had a permanent, full-time director. A person who is tasked with overseeing and regulating most of the operations, is a position that needs to be confirmed by the senate, which republican senators like Larry Craig (R-ID) and Michael D. Crapo (R-ID) have casually refused to confirm due to their undying affection and commitment to people who send them to Washington, i.e. the National Rifle Association lobbyists because fear of harsher gun restrictions and backlash from the NRA. 


These two aforementioned gentlemen voted No for the appointment of a US attorney who would have kept consistency and much-needed director, as the Director of the ATF, hence leaving the position vacant. Did I mention that it was an appointment as handpicked by then President George W. Bush? Embarrassing piece of information such as this should prompt the respectable, law-abiding gun owners who believe that the Republicans are looking out for them, to throw up in disgust. How can they expect the ATF to function if they provide it with no central guiding authority? Todd Jones, a U.S. attorney from the land of 10,000 lakes has been acting as a part-time ATF director and is in line to be the full-time director, given that the US senate confirms the man who is clearly capable of running the agency.


Congressional screw-ups:

Also, who can forget the Tiahrt Amendment that also mandates that gun sellers destroy background checks within 24 hours, and prohibit the ATF from using tracing data in courts.  There still are no laws in place that will prohibit retailers from selling guns to people with serious mental illness and previous criminal records. A schizophrenic Oklahoman who had shot his mother previously, easily procured more, dangerous weapons at Walmart, which the ATF was far from aware.


The ATF is like a guard dog, which has been shot in each leg and leashed so tightly that it can’t breathe, let alone bark loud enough to scare off the bad guys. I would like to address my responsible, arms-bearing friends that are lovingly touted as “gun-nuts.” Look, I know you all love your guns. But no one is coming for them, especially not the ATF. Even President Barack Obama’s allegedly tyrannical executive orders advocate for miniscule things like a national campaign for gun safety, mental health awareness, among other things. Heck, nominating a new ATF director is 11th on the president’s list. But we have got to get serious about letting the dedicated agents over at ATF do their jobs.


Hemang Sharma

Welcomes comments at [email protected]