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How ATF, key to Biden’s weapons plan, became an NRA ‘Whipping Boy’

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. – If there was a moment that summed up the current state of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, it was when the prosecution of the Weapons Tracing Center agency gave way a few years ago under the weight of paper. The accident was not entirely accidental. The gun lobby, led by the National Rifle Association, has systematically blocked plans for years to modernize the agency’s paper-based gun tracing system with a searchable database. As a result, records of gun sales dating back decades are stored in boxes stacked seven high, waiting to be processed, against each wall. Sign up for The Morning New York Times newsletter “We had a lady pushing a cart, and the ground just gave way,” recalled Tyson J. Arnold, who runs the plotting center, patting the new steel bridge. with his shoe. Now the long-suffering ATF (“explosives” were never part of the abbreviation) is at the center of President Joe Biden’s plans to fend off what he called “the international embarrassment” of the world. gun violence in America. As he laid out his comprehensive vision for the nation on Wednesday night, Biden again called on Congress to expand background checks and ban assault weapons. But given the continued power of the gun lobby, its immediate hopes lie in a more limited list of executive actions that will ultimately rest on the effectiveness of the ATF, the federal agency responsible for enforce the laws and actions of the country’s executive on firearms. Biden has ordered a ban on homemade gun kits known as “ghost guns,” a ban the ATF will have to enforce. To help shape gun policy, he tasked the ATF with undertaking the first comprehensive federal investigation into gun trafficking patterns since 2000. And to lead the office into the future, Biden appointed a former ATF agent and gun control activist David Chipman. But first, the office will have to overcome its past. In the 48 years that have passed since its mission turned primarily to gun control, it has been weakened by the relentless assaults of the NRA which many believe have revealed the ‘ATF as an agency designed to fail. At the instigation of the NRA, Congress limited the office’s budget. It has imposed crippling restrictions on the collection and use of data on gun ownership, including a ban on requiring basic inventories of guns from arms dealers. He limited unannounced inspections of gun dealers. Fifteen years ago, the NRA succeeded in pushing for the director’s appointment to be subject to Senate confirmation – and subsequently helped prevent all but one of the candidates from taking office. “ATF has all this potential, and they’re doing a lot of good things, but it’s about time someone asked, ‘What is it going to take for us to be successful rather than just walking on water? Said Thomas Brandon, who was the office of the office. acting director from 2015 until his retirement in 2019. In the weeks following a series of mass shootings that sparked calls to action, the New York Times interviewed two dozen people who had led the ATF or followed its decline. Their consensus was that the agency needed to be restructured, modernized, resourced and managed more proactively and aggressively. “What has been done at the ATF is systemic, it’s intentional and it’s a huge problem,” said T. Christian Heyne, vice president of policy at Brady, a gun control advocacy group in Canada. fire who proposed an executive action plan focused on agency enforcement. The ATF was also hampered from within. The office culture, several people said, prioritizes high-visibility operations, such as responding to episodes of violence during racial justice protests across the country last summer, over its more mundane primary mission. inspect and license arms dealers. This mission took a big step backwards in 2020 during the coronavirus pandemic, when annual inspections plunged by more than 50% even as gun sales hit record levels. To say that the ATF is outdated is an understatement. Workforce has remained essentially stable for two decades, with the number of inspectors responsible for supervising gun dealers having actually declined by about 20% since 2001. The number of guns sold during the same period has actually fallen by about 20%. period has skyrocketed: over 23 million guns in 2020, breaking the previous record of $ 15.7 million in 2016. “The ATF is the only federal organization that is basically the same size as it was in 1972, ”said Dale Armstrong, a 28-year-old retired agency veteran who led his national army. traffic unit. The Biden administration, despite all its talk about supporting the office, has yet to commit to significantly increasing its resources, proposing a 5% increase in ATF funding in this year’s discretionary budget. This is a much smaller increase than those given to many other agencies, like the Department of Education, which Biden sees as a core part of his program. “Let me put it that way,” said Thomas L. Chittum, a three-decade veteran of the office who now oversees all of its field operations. “It’s not easy to be ATF.” Wayne LaPierre, who led the NRA for three decades, pursued a legislative strategy that eroded the authority of the ATF. In 2003, the NRA helped draft the so-called Tiahrt Amendment – named after its sponsor, former Rep. Todd Tiahrt, R-Kan. – which placed severe restrictions on the ATF’s ability to share gun tracing data. It also requires the FBI to destroy most gun purchase records within 24 hours of a background check, and it prevents the ATF from requiring dealers to provide records of their inventories. External pressures have been compounded by tensions arising from ATF’s dual personality as the law enforcement and regulatory agency tasked with overseeing the country’s 75,000 stores, pawn shops, manufacturers and importers who buy and sell guns. The majority of ATF field workers are 2,600 special firearms and badge agents who work on firearms possession and trafficking cases, and join the FBI and local law enforcement. in larger drug and crime investigations. But there’s another, less glamorous side of the agency that gun security groups see as equally if not more important to ATF’s mission – an unarmed civilian workforce of 728 inspectors. who often felt neglected, disparaged and marginalized. Although only a small percentage of gun dealers are corrupt, bad actors do a lot of damage – 1.2% of gun dealers are responsible for over 57% of guns later attributed to crime , according to office estimates. Some gunsmiths, those considered to be least exposed to illegal activity, often go uninspected for seven or eight years. Some can go without an inspection for a decade. Locations in “source” areas, locations known to be the source of trafficking weapons, are often inspected more frequently, at least once every two or three years. Even in a good year, inspections cover less than 15% of authorized dealers, and the lack of consistent oversight has concrete consequences. A 2009 report by the Congressional Research Service found that “a substantial percentage of recovered firearms cannot be successfully traced for several reasons, including poor record keeping.” The mere presence of a permanent leader, like Chipman, has the potential to be transformative, former agency officials said. “I’ve never been the president’s guy, and being the president’s person means people are less likely to push you away,” said Brandon, the former interim director. “It gives you a lot more credibility on the street.” Chipman served as a special agent during a 22-year ATF career that ended in 2010, first in the hectic office of the office in Detroit, then in the Interstate 95 corridor, the largest canal in the country for illegal firearms, and office headquarters. There, he told The Trace website, he observed “the catastrophic drawbacks of the gun lobby’s efforts to prevent the ATF from modernizing.” Gabrielle Giffords, the former Arizona congressman who became a gun control activist after being seriously injured in an assassination attempt, began pushing, along with other security groups firearms, to hire Chipman in mid-November, shortly after Biden was elected, according to several people with knowledge of the situation. But for weeks after the inauguration, the White House and its allies in the Senate blocked, in part to spare gun-friendly Democrats like West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin III, from a tough vote as they focused on the pandemic and spending. invoices. The shootings that killed 18 in Atlanta and Boulder, Colo. In mid-March were a game-changer. Soon after, Giffords wrote to Biden, asking him to meet with her to discuss Chipman. By this time, Biden’s chief of staff Ron Klain had lent his support to Chipman, and Biden later told Giffords he was ready to “fight” for the appointment, according to an official with the administration aware of the exchange. Almost immediately, the NRA announced plans to spend $ 2 million to defeat Chipman, cutting an ad targeting Senator Susan Collins, a moderate Republican from Maine. Chipman’s choice “stings people in the eye,” said Joshua Powell, a former senior NRA official who has become critical of his leadership. “I think the president would be better served by appointing a more apolitical person and building more bridges to bipartisanship.” Chipman’s confirmation – the Senate hearing is set to take place at the end of May – is anything but certain, with one West Wing official claiming his “hard cap” in the Senate was 51 or 52 up votes. Manchin, a critical vote, said he was in favor of Chipman, and administration officials insist there is no reason to create a Plan B if his appointment is justified. This article originally appeared in The New York Times. © 2021 The New York Times Company

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