Want Gun Control? Empower the ATF

We need to expand the scope of political conflict against the NRA. But eventually, we need to talk about policy.

A long time ago, in 1981, the National Rifle Association produced a short film called “It Can Happen Here.” In it, federal agents of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) are depicted as “Nazi gestapos” and “jack-booted fascists.”

The following year Congressman John Dingell, a Michigan Democrat, said this of the agency tasked with regulating the nation’s gun market: “I would love to put [ATF agents] in jail,” said Dingell, now retired. “I would dearly love it. I think they are evil.”

By the 1990s, the NRA’s coordinated attacks on the ATF had reached a “fever pitch,” according to gun policy expert Robert J. Spitzer, a professor of political science at SUNY Cortland and the author of The Politics of Gun Control.

The ATF was called a “loose cannon” harassing gun owners and sellers. It was accused of “murder and persecution of innocent citizens.” The late US Rep. Harold Volkmer (D-Missouri) called it “the most Rambo-rogue law enforcement agencies in the United States.” A conservative talk-radio host went to far as to advise listeners to take “head shots,” because ATF agents were known to wear bullet-proof vests. In 1995, 100 ATF agents reported death threats not only to themselves but to their children.

The 1990s saw a fever pitch of incendiary rhetoric, but the 2000s saw the NRA’s political agenda turned into public policy. The George W. Bush administration allowed to expire, in 2004, a federal ban on assault weapons. Four years later, the US Supreme Court ruled on Heller v. District of Columbia, which “nationalized” the Second Amendment so states could not prohibit ownership of handguns for self-defense.

There’s a name for all of the above. It’s calling expanding the “scope of conflict.”

That’s what EE Schattschneider called it in his classic book from 1960 called The Semisovereign People. A professor of political science at Wesleyan, Schattschneider was trying to understand how people organize themselves to achieve power and use it to enact policies they want. He said it is the loser of policy fights “who calls for outside help” in order to gain the advantage, which is then used to change the outcome. In the 1960s, the NRA was the loser. Since then, and for more than three decades afterward, the NRA expanded the scope of conflict to include unrelenting attacks on the ATF.

Now, the NRA is the winner. Gun control is the loser. But since the 2012 Sandy Hook massacre, and since this year’s Parkland massacre, and now the mass shooting in Santa Fe, Texas, the losers have been expanding the scope of conflict to include unrelenting and entirely founded attacks on the NRA. If Schattschneider is right in that conflict comes before policy, that is a necessary step.

But eventually, policy must come into play. Right now, the only policy discussion consists of federal background checks, assault weapons bans, and other things. But so far, nothing from the gun control side about enforcement. As long as the ATF is weak, and as you’ll it is the “weak sister” of law enforcement, laws won’t achieve what gun control advocates desire. Consider these facts (all from Spitzer’s book.)

In 1985, the ATF had 400 agents to inspect more than 200,000 gun sellers. In 1994, it was 250 agents for more than 280,000 sellers. From 1972 to 2005, the ATF revoked an average of 20 licenses a year. Through the 2000s, “corrupt gun dealers” who violated criminal laws “were almost never prosecuted.” Think about that for a moment.

A former ATF director said he was so understaffed and underfunded, it would take his agency 750 years to properly vet firearms dealer applications. He also said that illegal trafficking was so widespread at private-sale gun shows that “if we wanted to, we could go to a gun show and arrest people coming out, and just line ‘em up.”

It gets worse. The ATF tends to do better with Democratic presidents, but that’s not always the case. Unlike the Secret Service or the FBI, the ATF has no “native constituency” to protect it from political winds, Spitzer writes. It inspires little respect in law enforcement. J. Edgar Hoover called it the bureau of “Whiskey, Cigarettes and Pistols.” It has also no statutory independence, so it’s easily starved of funding.

There’s more bad news. By law, the ATF is barred from computerizing its records. To this day, the vetting of firearms licenses are still done by hand on paper. The agency is also barred, Spitzer writes, from creating a database of what guns are sold to whom, where and when. We still don’t not know how many guns are stolen each year.

An enfeebled ATF can’t regulate a federal gun market. This makes a mockery of state laws trying to regulate state markets. New York has some of the strictest gun laws in the country but can’t do anything about corrupt gun dealers in Virginia, where most of the gun trafficking in New York comes from. The same dynamic takes place in high-regulation states like California (guns from Nevada) and Illinois (from Indiana).

The tide is turning against the NRA. We can all feel it. And that tide is gaining momentum with each new revelation about the NRA’s role in forming a back channel between the president of the United States and illiberal foreign powers. But eventually, as the scope of conflict is sufficiently expanded, we’ll need to talk about policy.

Laws are one thing. Enforcement is another.


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