Thursday, May 28, 2015 | 2 a.m.
Here we go again. Rather than fund the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, let’s tear it up and hand it over to the FBI. The cost of that, of course, would be four to six times what just giving the maligned agency the kind of support it needs to carry out its statutory authority would amount to.
That’s the latest attack on the chief federal bulwark against gun violence. What makes this unusual is that it doesn’t come from conservative sources like the Republican right, but from one on the liberal side normally aligned with the Obama administration. The Fund for American Progress, a think tank, has issued a lengthy report that seems to be based more on interviews with ATF’s regulatory officers than those charged with enforcing the law.
Over the decades, ATF agents have faced increasing difficulties in carrying out their mission because of underfunding, lack of direction at the top, harassment from a Congress that would rather have no interference with Second Amendment rights, a policy that has seen the proliferation of firearms from Saturday night specials to the battlefield variety, and a steady increase in the number of Americans who lose their lives each day to firearms.
Examples of that kind of horrific violence have played out in schools, shopping centers, movie theaters and college campuses and on the nation’s streets. Among supposed civilized nations, America has become the chief model of mindless and deadly social disruption supported by constitutional fiat that has no relevance in today’s world. The latest blood bath recently took place in a Texas restaurant jam-packed with motorcycle thugs who reportedly had gone there for recruiting purposes. Before the Waco police, Texas Rangers and state police could get it settled, nine were dead, a number wounded and 170 or so arrested.
The only visible federal law enforcement presence was represented by those with the big ATF acronym on the backs of their jackets. Only a few days earlier, these men and women had been called to the scene of a mysterious fire in an upscale neighborhood where the bodies of four people were found — three adults and a 10-year-old. It took only a short time for ATF’s arson experts to determine the fire was deliberately set obviously in a botched attempt to hide the slayings. This kind of expertise has been developed over years of dedicated hard work.
So let’s hand that responsibility to another agency to start all over. It seems ironic that Waco was the site of ATF’s most disastrous incident when agents, in trying to serve a search warrant on violent cultists at the request of local authorities, were met with a hail of gunfire that killed four and wounded several others in the federal force. The FBI rushed in to take over and ended up destroying the compound and a number of the cultists. ATF took most of the blame, although it was not involved in the ultimate disaster.
The fact is that nearly every federal law enforcement agency is underfunded with the exception of the FBI. It clearly is time for Congress to stop playing politics with those entrusted to carrying out enforcement of the statutes it has adopted. Pro-gun forces have used ATF as a political football almost since the days it hunted down bootleggers and those producing illegal whiskey. With the political ascendency of the NRA and its campaign to prevent any meaningful gun control no matter how obviously worthy and necessary, ATF became a major “straw man” in that effort.
The last thing the NRA and others who have worked so hard to undercut the firearms agency by denying it funds, deriding its “jack booted” agents and persuading Congress until just 20 months ago to keep it from winning Congressional confirmation of a permanent director is for the FBI to assume control of enforcing gun laws.
Doing away with ATF hopefully won’t happen. It is a bad idea. The better solution would be to give it the wherewithal to do its job, a dangerous assignment enough without having to contend with all those who want everyone to carry a gun.
Dan Thomasson is an op-ed columnist for Tribune News Service and a former vice president of Scripps Howard Newspapers.