There is more than one way that the National Rifle Association and other gun rights groups have stalled gun control in America. The most obvious is through state and federal laws that allow the sale of assault weapons, the ability to carry concealed weapons and private gun sales without background checks. But just as significant is the influence the gun lobby has over the enforcement of what gun regulations there are — most notably by hamstringing the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. If the nation is going to get serious about gun control, it will need to ensure officers charged with enforcing such laws actually have the tools and authority to proceed.
Congress' ambivalence on gun control preceding the massacre at Newtown, Conn., earlier this month is most noticeable with its attitude toward ATF. In six years, neither President George W. Bush nor Barack Obama have been able to win Senate confirmation of a permanent director. Thanks to NRA opposition, Obama's 2010 nomination of ATF veteran special agent Andrew Traver has languished in the U.S. Senate's Judiciary Committee. The inertia comes even as botched episodes such as Operation Fast and Furious have made it abundantly clear the agency is in need of a strong, permanent leader, be it Traver or someone else.
But less known is how even some of ATF's most basic functions are hampered by arcane rules in an era of smartphones and 30-bullet ammunition clips. As the New York Times reported this week, under current law the ATF is prohibited from maintaining a comprehensive federal registry of gun sales. As a result, when it comes to tracking the serial numbers for weapons used in crimes, the result is a labor-intensive, time-consuming process that requires a manual search of incomplete and out-of-date paper records and phone calls.
And there are other constraints when it comes to overseeing the sale of firearms. As the New York Times reported, the agency is barred from making more than one yearly unannounced inspection per licensed gun dealer. It must destroy records of background checks it performs within 24 hours of approval, making it hard to identify dealers who falsify records or buyers who make "straw" purchases. There are limits on what the ATF can share with local and state law enforcement agencies. And there is the issue of consequences. Gun dealers caught falsifying weapons sales records face a mere misdemeanor charge.
Guns rights advocates like to claim that all the nation should be considering is enforcing laws already on the books. But that ignores the reality of how political influence has hampered ATF's ability to do its job. Part of how America became awash in guns is cultural, but part of it is also that the main agency charged with checking their flow has been purposely hamstrung from doing much about it.