Center for American Progress

RELEASE: After 2-Year Investigation, CAP Report Concludes That ATF’s Mission and Agents Should Be Moved Into the FBI
Press Release

RELEASE: After 2-Year Investigation, CAP Report Concludes That ATF’s Mission and Agents Should Be Moved Into the FBI

160-Page Report Cites Leadership Challenges, Coordination, and Resources as Major Rationales for Merger

Washington, D.C. — Following an extensive two-year investigation into the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, or ATF, the Center for American Progress has released a major report that outlines the challenges that the bureau faces in fulfilling its mission of combating gun crime and regulating the gun industry. The report concludes that to improve federal enforcement of gun laws and industry regulation, ATF—its mission, agents, and investigators—should be merged into the Federal Bureau of Investigation, or FBI. The research underlying the report involved interviews with more than 50 current and former ATF agents and members of law enforcement. The report is also informed by the expertise of Mark D. Jones, a former ATF special agent with 20 years of experience who served as a special advisor to the project, and Elaine Kamarck, who led the Clinton administration’s National Performance Review and conducted a budget analysis for the report.

“Every day, thousands of dedicated agents and civilians working at ATF fight to keep guns out of the hands of criminals—many risk their lives,” said Arkadi Gerney, CAP Senior Vice President. “But too often, the leadership, management, and resources lag behind the dedication of the agents. With 33 people murdered with guns in the United States every day, it is time to think big about how best to fulfill ATF’s mission to enforce gun laws and regulate the gun industry.”

ATF currently faces a number of serious challenges in its efforts to fulfill its role as the leading federal agency charged with enforcing the nation’s gun laws, combating gun crime, and regulating the firearms industry. The agency has suffered from a leadership vacuum at the highest level, going seven years without a confirmed director before the confirmation of B. Todd Jones in August 2013—and once again facing another long period without a permanent director with his recent resignation. ATF also is expected to operate with insufficient resources, a stagnating budget, and burdensome restrictions on its work. In addition, while ATF and the FBI share jurisdiction over violent crime, guns, and explosives investigations, the relationship between the two agencies has more often been characterized by competition than cooperation.

Merging ATF into the FBI would mitigate many of these challenges and be a significant step forward in creating a strong federal law enforcement response to gun violence. The FBI is a politically strong agency with effective management and the resources it needs to support its work. It already shares jurisdiction with ATF on violent crime and explosives operations, and a merger would eliminate the turf war between the two agencies that has existed for decades. A merger would also promote government efficiency, which would result in modest budget savings.

“During my 20 years as an ATF special agent, I was privileged to work alongside some of the most dedicated and talented members of law enforcement in this country—men and women who poured their energy into stopping gun violence and saving lives,” said Jones. “Sadly, our work was often undercut by political limitations imposed on ATF from without: failure to confirm a permanent director, misguided congressional meddling in our operations, and a perennial lack of resources. Something needs to change, and this report presents an opportunity for a dialogue about firearms regulation and enforcement that desperately needs to take place.”

“As we are now facing what will likely be another long period without a confirmed ATF director, this is an appropriate time to take a close look at the federal government’s approach to combating gun crime—particularly gun trafficking—and regulation of the gun industry,” said Chelsea Parsons, CAP Vice President of Guns and Crime Policy. “With this report, we hope to spur a larger national conversation about enforcement of gun laws in the United States and how we can strengthen current enforcement efforts and finally provide the special agents and investigators who do this work the tools they need to be truly effective.”

The United States continues to experience high levels of gun violence, even while overall violent crime continues to decline. Gun murder rates in this country are nearly 20 times higher than our peer nations and, if trends continue, guns will overtake car accidents as the leading killer of young people in the United States sometime this year. It is therefore critical to have a federal law enforcement agency with strong leadership, sufficient resources, and political support to confront the problem of gun crime in this country and to engage in effective and proactive regulation of the gun industry.

“One of the most effective steps we can take to stop gun violence is to enforce the laws that are already on the books,” said U.S. Rep. Mike Thompson (D-CA.), Chair of the House Gun Violence Prevention Task Force. “The problem is that ATF is hamstrung in their efforts to enforce those laws. They lack the necessary funding, backdoor legislative tactics have undermined their ability to carry out their mission, and their authority in certain areas is murky at best. Because of this, it is important that we explore different options such as the possibility of moving the ATF to the FBI. This could allow us to better crack down on gun violence, enforce the laws and get dangerous people and weapons off the streets.”

“Research shows that gun laws are more effective when coupled with strong and effective law enforcement,” said Daniel Webster, Director of the Center for Gun Policy and Research at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. “To significantly reduce gun violence in America, we must vigorously enforce laws designed to keep guns from dangerous criminals. CAP’s new report presents a thorough overview of the challenges inherent in enforcing federal gun laws under the current system and thoughtful recommendations for how best to equip law enforcement with the tools necessary to do so.”

Proposals to reorganize ATF have been considered a number of times over the past three decades, including by the Reagan and Clinton administrations, and a bill to merge ATF into the FBI was introduced earlier this year by Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-WI).

Click here to read the report.

For more information on this topic or to speak with an expert, contact Tom Caiazza at [email protected] or 202.481.7141.

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