Some US lawmakers are calling for better enforcement of existing federal gun laws, rather than considering new ones. This is not an unreasonable argument...except that the agency charged with enforcing such laws - The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) - has been weakened to the point that it doesn't have the manpower to enforce them properly. Additionally, the laws themselves have been weakened to the point that they are largely ineffective in cracking down on illegal gun sales and preventing gun violence. And this watering down of gun laws was done with the active encouragement of the NRA, whose sole mission seems to be increasing gun sales, regardless of the human cost. Here are some of the ways that ATF is being kept from doing its job.
The ATF has been without a permanent chief for over six years, since Congress - at the prodding of the NRA - decided in 2006 that the position would require Senate confirmation. Although it has had interim directors, the bureau is in effect a rudderless ship, with sagging morale and no real agenda. In 2010, President Obama nominated Andrew Traver for the post, but due to Republican opposition, his nomination never even made it to hearing. The NRA immediately opposed Traver's nomination because they felt he was "hostile" to the Second Amendment. Senate Republicans even held up George W. Bush's 2008 nominee for the post, Michael J. Sullivan, because of Sullivan's refusal to loosen gun licensing regulations. Earlier this month, President Obama nominated B. Todd Jones, the current acting director, to fill the post, but his confirmation is far from certain. Republicans are concerned about his links to the Fast and Furious scandal, even though he took over the helm after the controversy. But if Jones is not confirmed, the ATF will remain leaderless for the foreseeable future, which will only continue to hinder the agency's attempts to enforce federal gun laws and punish those who sell guns illegally.
The ATF has also been operating with the bare minimum of funding. Its budget has only increased about 25% in the past decade, much less than that of other law enforcement agencies, such as the FBI. Largely for that reason, the size of the ATF staff has not changed since 2004, even as the workload has increased. For example, 344,447 gun traces were completed in fiscal year 2012, compared to about 285,000 in 2007. In fact ATF is operating with fewer agents than it had in the 1970s. The ATF has as many agents as the Phoenix Police Department has officers. And these are the agents charged with enforcing federal gun laws throughout the entire country. With little increase in funding and no increase in staff, the increased enforcement called for is nearly impossible
Funding and staffing aside, many of the laws currently in place don't lend themselves to efficiently tracking stolen guns and preventing gun crimes. For example, under current law, the ATF is prohibited from creating a federal registry of gun transactions. Currently, when a gun is recovered after a crime, local law enforcement gives the serial number to the ATF's National Tracing Center, which makes calls to the manufacturer, the wholesaler, and finally the dealer to search their files and identify the owner. This process is cumbersome and time-consuming, and sometimes fruitless. Some lawmakers in Congress have sided with the NRA in arguing that such a database represents a threat to the 2nd Amendment, because registries have been used in other countries to confiscate weapons. In the United States, sales of cars and homes are registered; is it really unreasonable to require that the sales of deadly weapons be registered? The purpose is not for confiscation, but for identification. Stolen guns, or guns found at crime scenes, could be traced much more quickly, perhaps leading to faster apprehension of criminals. Additionally, a spike in transactions at a particular gun store could alert the authorities to illegal gun sales taking place at that store. The Second Amendment does not guarantee the right of ANONYMOUS gun ownership. Why can't we leave the Feds out of it and let states handle it? Because guns are very easily taken across state lines. A federal database consolidates that information in one place, regardless of the state in which a gun was originally purchased.
The Firearms Owners Protection Act of 1986 prohibits ATF agents from making more than one inspection per year of licensed gun dealers, under the pretense of preventing "harrassment" of gun dealers. The Act also reduced falsification of gun dealers' records from a felony to a misdemeanor. This means several things. Once a gun dealer is inspected, if that dealer is inclined to engage in illegal gun sales, they know that have at least a year to get away with it. Yet because of the ATF's understaffing, most dealers are inspected only once every seven years, so they likely have much longer. And if they are caught falsifying records, dealers only face a fine. There is simply little motivation for an unscrupulous gun dealer to operate legally when there is little chance of getting caught, and the punishment for being caught is less than the potential profit made from selling guns illegally.
Gun laws took another hit when the Tiahrt Amendments, named after their original sponsor, Republican Congressman Todd Tiahrt from Kansas, were attached as amendments to unrelated spending bills in 2003 and 2004. These laws have the sole purpose of making it more difficult to pursue criminals who engage in illegal gun trafficking. They prevent ATF from using tracing data on firearms to suspend or revoke a gun dealer's license. They restrict what state and local law enforcement can do with gun trace data. (Until 2010, state and local law enforcement weren't even allowed ACCESS to ATF gun trace data) They require that the NICS background check records of approved gun buyers be destroyed within 24 hours, making it more difficult to identify dealers who falsify records, or straw purchasers who buy guns for those not qualified to own them. The Tiahrt Amendments also prevent the ATF from requiring gun dealers to conduct annual inventory checks to detect lost or stolen guns. Essentially every regulation that would make it more difficult to get away with selling guns illegally has been watered down to make them almost totally ineffective.
Keeping guns out of the hands of those with criminal intent imust go beyond the catchprases of "improving mental health care" in the United States, or changing our "culture of violence". It means keeping gun dealers from selling guns illegally. It means being able to trace stolen guns. If there is no threat of harsh punishment for gun trafficking, or if there is little chance of being caught, what's to stop unscrupulous dealers from taking advantage of these loopholes to make the quick buck? No law-abiding gun owner has anything to fear by gun dealers being held to strict standards. In fact, one would think that a law-abiding gun owner, knowing the dangers of guns in the wrong hands, would appreciate gun dealers having to take the steps to make sure that guns are sold and records are kept in such a way that protects the publc. This leads me to conclude that the reason the NRA objects to dealer regulations is because they are afraid these regulations will be a hassle to dealers and reduce gun sales. A dollar is a dollar, illegal sale or not, and the NRA wants happy dealers. Well, the rest of the country wants safe children. It remains to be seen which side will win.