Center for American Progress

RELEASE: How ATF Can More Effectively Address Gun Violence by Reprioritizing Its Spending
Press Release

RELEASE: How ATF Can More Effectively Address Gun Violence by Reprioritizing Its Spending

Washington, D.C. — For decades, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) has been asked to fulfill its substantial mission to enforce federal gun laws and provide regulatory oversight of the gun industry with limited resources. The agency’s budget has remained largely stagnant, even as the industry it is charged with overseeing has grown exponentially. Gun violence prevention advocates have therefore pressured lawmakers in Congress to increase the budget for this agency to ensure that there is robust oversight of the gun industry and sufficient resources to effectively address serious gun-related crimes, such as gun trafficking.

But while an increase to the agency’s budget would begin to address these shortcomings, a new issue brief from the Center for American Progress analyzing ATF’s budget over the past decade outlines how the agency’s existing budget could be strategically reallocated by deemphasizing spending on reactive and redundant law enforcement efforts. Instead, ATF should prioritize initiatives that offer unique value to efforts to reduce interstate gun trafficking, detect and interrupt the diversion of guns from lawful to unlawful streams of commerce, and provide investigative support to local law enforcement to help solve shootings.

“ATF serves a crucial function when it comes to effectively responding to and preventing gun violence,” said Chelsea Parsons, vice president of Gun Violence Prevention at the Center. “And while the agency has been historically underfunded and certainly needs more resources to effectively meet its broad mandate, the agency could be much more strategic about how it allocates the funding it does receive to focus on its unique functions and the areas where it adds tremendous value to efforts to address interstate gun trafficking and solve complex shootings.”

This analysis of ATF’s budget from 2013 through 2020 reveals that the agency dedicated disproportionate resources to law enforcement activities focused on “firearms criminal use and possession” and “combatting criminal organizations,” efforts that are largely duplicative of the work of other law enforcement agencies and that contribute to overpolicing and mass incarceration of communities of color. During this period, funding for these categories grew from 36 percent of the overall budget for law enforcement operations in 2013 to 54 percent in 2020. At the same time, funding for program activities focused on “deterring illegal firearms trafficking/violent gun crime” and “diversion of firearms from legal commerce” remained stagnant and only represented between 24 percent and 27 percent of the total budget for law enforcement operations. In addition, funding for the crime gun tracing program—a vital effort to help solve violent gun-related crimes—has been inconsistent, even as the number of guns submitted for tracing has steadily grown.

Read the issue brief: “Rethinking ATF’s Budget To Prioritize Effective Gun Violence Prevention” by Chelsea Parsons, Eugenio Weigend Vargas, and Rukmani Bhatia.

For more information on this topic or to speak with an expert, please contact Adam Peck at [email protected].