Editorial: Give ATF more muscle to stop illegal gun sales

Guns and other weapons and belongings seized from Guns and other weapons and belongings seized from The Pagan's after 14 raids across the state, on display at the ATF office in Melville. Photo Credit: James Carbone, 2010

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Congress should unshackle the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives in the fight against illegal guns. Restrictions on the bureau's activities are hobbling efforts to combat firearms trafficking and reduce the day-to-day gun violence plaguing the nation.

Americans have a constitutional right to own guns. And licensed gun dealers who operate legally must have nothing to fear from regulators. But most guns that find their way into the hands of madmen and criminals begin that journey in a legal sale. Better policing of the border between legal and illegal ownership is just common sense.

The first thing the Senate should do is confirm a permanent director for the ATF. It hasn't had one since 2006, when Congress, nudged by gun-rights lobbyists, made Senate confirmation necessary. Since then neither Republican George W. Bush nor Democrat Barack Obama managed to find a nominee who could successfully run that gantlet.

Andrew Traver, the head of the bureau's Denver division whom Obama nominated in 2010, has yet to have a hearing. Some senators apparently like the idea of a series of weak, temporary directors. The bureau needs someone on the job who can set an aggressive enforcement agenda. But that's just a start.

Since 1986 the ATF has been prohibited by law from conducting more than one unannounced inspection per year of a licensed gun dealer. That same law reduced the offense of a dealer falsifying sales records to a misdemeanor. Limited scrutiny and lesser penalties are no way to discourage sales to straw buyers who supply guns for people who cannot legally purchase them.

The bureau is also prohibited by law from creating a centralized database of gun transactions. Gun rights advocates insist such a registry would be a threat to the right to bear arms. But without it, every time police ask the ATF to track the transaction history of a gun connected to a crime, officials must turn to gun manufacturers, individual gun dealers and even scour handwritten files from dealers no longer in business. The ATF fielded 344,447 trace requests last year. That's no way to operate in this digitized world.

ATF officials are also required by law to destroy records of background checks of gun buyers within 24 hours of approving a gun purchase. That makes it difficult to identify dealers who falsify records, or to track buyers who make purchases for others.

Congress should review these restrictions with an eye to making it tougher for disreputable dealers to do business and easier for officials to track the illegal transfer of firearms.

The bureau has not always been a model of rectitude. It's been dogged by controversy for years. There was the deadly 1992 siege at Ruby Ridge in Idaho, and the lethal raid and fire at the Branch Davidian compound in Texas in 1993. Now it's embroiled in a congressional inquiry of Operation Fast and Furious, in which ATF agents investigating traffickers in Arizona lost track of guns smuggled to drug dealers in Mexico. Two of the rifles later turned up in Arizona at the scene of the 2010 murder of U.S. Border Patrol agent Brian Terry.

Yet those incidents, though troubling, are no reason to hamstring the ATF in its basic job of regulating the nation's 51,142 licensed gun dealers and curbing the illegal use and trafficking of firearms.

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