Want To Do Some Gun-Running? Call The ATF And Ask Them To Help.

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There’s been a lot of Internet chatter this week about the insufficiency of gun laws that enabled a violent felon like Ismaaiyl Brinsley to get his hands on a gun, bring it up to New York City after assaulting a girlfriend in Baltimore, and then use it to murder two NYPD cops. And first and foremost on the list of stricter gun controls is the idea of instituting background checks on all gun transactions, not just the initial sale between dealer and customer that moves every gun into the civilian arsenal in the first place.

Don’t get me wrong.  I’m not opposed to sensible measures that will reduce gun violence, but I think the continued attempt by gun-sense advocates to push for universal background checks at the national level is something that won’t happen, nor under the present regulatory system am I convinced that it should.  Any expansion of background checks means an expansion in the authority and regulatory reach of the ATF and frankly, when it comes to enforcing the gun laws we already have on the books, I don’t get the warm and fuzzies looking at the job they’ve done.

atf                On February 28, 1993 the ATF so badly bungled the serving of a search warrant on the Branch Davidian compound outside of Waco that the end result was 4 ATF agents killed, along with 76 members of the Branch Davidian sect.  The ATF wanted to search the Mt. Carmel compound because they were convinced, on the basis of not a shred of credible information, that David Koresh and his followers were converting semi-auto assault rifles into full-auto weapons which they were going to use in an assault on ‘non-believers’ living in Waco and God knows where else. This theory of an imminent Branch Davidian Armageddon-like attack was pure nonsense, and what wasn’t pure nonsense was pure crap.

Not only didn’t the ATF learn anything from this fiasco, but they upped the ante in a bizarre investigation called Fast and Furious which was conducted in Phoenix and Tucson between 2006 and 2010.  This time they actively encouraged and managed the straw sales of more than 2,500 guns which were allegedly headed for Mexico and the Sinaloa drug cartel.  Once again, the ATF was convinced without a single bit of evidence that the straw purchasers were converting semi-auto ARs and AKs into automatic weapons, using local auto-body shops both to stash and re-do the guns.  The so-called ‘mastermind’ behind this gun-running operation was a 26-year old schlub, Manuel Celis-Acosta, who, it turns out, was also working as an informant for the FBI.  At one point an ATF supervisor actually let Celis-Acosta walk away from an arrest, wrote her phone number on the back of a ten-dollar bill and made him ‘promise’ to call her back.  Of course he called her back.  Of course.  Talk about the Keystone Kops.

Of course once the Republicans heard about this whole mess, they did what they can always be counted on doing, namely, ignored the stupidity and possible malfeasance of the ATF in order to grandstand a Congressional hearing which turned into the usual ‘let’s get the President’ kind of thing.  It’s really too bad that Congressman Issa (R-CA) didn’t take a long and hard look at Fast and Furious, if only because he knows more about illegal guns than you think.  In 1972 he was arrested and convicted for driving around with an unregistered gun in his car, which sounds a little bit like what the ATF did with Celis-Acosta, except Celis-Acosta didn’t show up in court.

Representative Carolyn Maloney (D-NY) has been pushing a gun trafficking bill year after year but it won’t ever reach the floor.  The truth is that the numero uno gun trafficker in the United States is a federal law-enforcement agency called the ATF. I’d love to see the local cops be given more tools and resources in the battle against illegal guns.  Up until now, unfortunately, waiting for the ATF to provide such help has been like waiting for Godot.

Does The ATF Know How To Regulate Guns? Maybe Yes, Maybe No

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When it was revealed in December, 2010 that U.S. Border Patrol agent Brian Terry was killed with a gun that had been “walked” out of an Arizona gun shop as part of an ATF-managed gun-running operation called Fast and Furious, to put it politely, all hell broke loose.  Guns ‘walk’ out of a gun store, when someone has been allowed to commit a “straw” purchase with the knowledge and approval of law enforcement, in this case, the ATF.  A straw purchase is a serious federal felony because someone who can pass the required background check is, in fact, buying the gun for someone who can’t.  Straw sales are considered the primary method by which guns get into the wrong hands and the ATF conducts random inspections of licensed dealers in order to identify such sales.

atf                The ATF has been responsible for regulating federally-licensed gun dealers since the passage of the Federal Firearms Act in 1938.  This law, for the first time required interstate gun transfers to be made via licensed dealers (the license cost a buck), and also required dealers to sell guns only to residents of their own state.  The law was strengthened by the Gun Control Act of 1968, which established categories of ‘prohibited’ persons (felons, fugitives, etc.) to whom guns could not be sold, required dealers to verify the identity of the purchaser and to retain records of each sale.  The ATF, which was a small operation within Internal Revenue Service under the Department of the Treasury, was given authority and additional resources to conduct gun-shop inspections to make sure that dealers were following the law.

The role of the ATF expanded again with the passage of the Brady bill in 1994.  This law created the instant background check system which allows the FBI to examine court records of anyone before the public purchase of a gun.  The law requires dealers not only to verify the identification of the purchaser, but also to withhold delivery of the gun if the FBI, based on background check results indicates that the sale should not go through.  If a dealer allows purchases to be consummated without a background check, or does not exercise diligence in verifying the identity of the buyer, once again ATF gets into the act.

If the current argument over expanding background checks to all gun transfers ends up in the elimination of private sales, the result will be a further widening of the firearm regulatory infrastructure and a greater degree of authority vested in the ATF.  And because the debate over background checks has focused entirely on whether such checks will actually reduce crime, the issue of fixing the regulatory system has been largely ignored.  Some Republicans whine that the system isn’t working because the ATF’s activities result in just a handful of gun prosecutions each year.  But the issue isn’t really whether the criminal enforcement of gun regulations should be stepped up.  After reading thousands of pages of government documents on Fast and Furious, I believe it may not be possible to simply fix a system that appears to be so screwed up.

The ATF encouraged gun dealers to make these Fast and Furious sales which, in every single case, required the dealer to violate federal regulatory laws that the ATF is supposed to enforce.  More than 2,000 weapons walked out of gun shops because the ATF believed this that busting an important gun-running operation would, for the first time, heighten ATF’s role and value in the federal law enforcement scheme of things.  ATF is brought in on all crimes that involve guns, but the dirty little secret is that picking up the gun counts very little, it’s all about catching and convicting the guy who used a gun to commit the crime.

Don’t get me wrong.  I’m not against expanding background checks to cover private sales and I hope I-594 goes through next week.  But until the ATF’s role in federal law enforcement is clearly defined and understood, just giving them more gun transactions to regulate might create more problems than it solves.

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