MARTINSBURG, W.Va. — If there was one moment that summed up the current state of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, it was when the floor at the agency’s gun-tracing center caved in a couple of years ago under the weight of paper.
The accident was not entirely accidental.
The gun lobby, led by the National Rifle Association, has for years systematically blocked plans to modernize the agency’s paper-based weapons-tracing system with a searchable database. As a result, records of gun sales going back decades are stored in boxes stacked seven high, waiting to be processed, against every wall.
“We had a lady pushing a cart, and the floor just gave way,” recalled Tyson J. Arnold, who runs the tracing center, tapping the new, steel-braced deck with his shoe.
Now the long-suffering ATF (somehow the “explosives” never made it into the abbreviation) is at the center of President Joe Biden’s plans to push back at what he has called “the international embarrassment” of gun violence in America.
As he laid out his expansive vision for the nation on Wednesday night, Biden once again called on Congress to expand background checks and ban assault weapons. But given the abiding power of the gun lobby, his immediate hopes lie in a more limited list of executive actions that will ultimately rely on the effectiveness of the ATF, the federal agency tasked with enforcing the country’s gun laws and executive actions.
Biden has ordered a ban on the homemade-firearm kits known as “ghost guns,” a prohibition the ATF will have to enforce. To help set gun policy, he has charged the ATF with undertaking the first comprehensive federal survey of weapons-trafficking patterns since 2000. And to lead the bureau into the future, Biden has nominated a fiery former ATF agent and gun-control activist, David Chipman.
First, though, the bureau will have to overcome its past. In the 48 years since its mission shifted primarily to firearms enforcement, it has been weakened by relentless assaults from the NRA that have, in the view of many, made the ATF appear to be an agency engineered to fail.
At the NRA’s instigation, Congress has limited the bureau’s budget. It has imposed crippling restrictions on the collection and use of gun-ownership data, including a ban on requiring basic inventories of weapons from gun dealers. It has limited unannounced inspections of gun dealers. Fifteen years ago, the NRA successfully lobbied to make the director’s appointment subject to Senate confirmation — and has subsequently helped block all but one nominee from taking office.
“ATF has all this potential, and they do a lot of good things, but it’s time somebody asked, ‘What is it going to take for us to succeed rather than just treading water?’” said Thomas Brandon, who served as the bureau’s interim director from 2015 until retiring in 2019.
In the weeks after a series of mass shootings prompted calls for action, The New York Times interviewed two dozen people who had either run the ATF or tracked its decline. Their consensus was that the agency needed to be restructured, modernized, given adequate resources and managed in a more proactive and aggressive way.
“What’s been done to the ATF is systemic, it’s intentional and it’s a huge problem,” said T. Christian Heyne, vice president of policy at Brady, a gun control advocacy group that has proposed a plan for executive action centered on enforcement by the agency.
The ATF has also been hindered from within. The bureau’s culture, several people said, prioritizes high-visibility operations, like responding to episodes of violence at the racial-justice protests across the country last summer, over its more mundane core mission of inspecting and licensing gun dealers. That mission took a major step back in 2020 during the coronavirus pandemic, when annual inspections nose-dived by more than 50% even as gun sales surged to record levels.
To say the ATF is outgunned is an understatement. Staffing levels have remained essentially flat for two decades, with the number of inspectors who are responsible for overseeing gun dealers actually decreasing by about 20% since 2001. The number of firearms sold over the same period has skyrocketed: more than 23 million guns in 2020, shattering the previous record of 15.7 million in 2016.
“The ATF is the only federal organization that is basically the same size it was in 1972,” said Dale Armstrong, a retired 28-year veteran of the agency who ran its national gun-trafficking unit.
The Biden administration, for all its talk about supporting the bureau, has yet to commit to a significant increase in resources, proposing a 5% bump in ATF funding in this year’s discretionary budget. That is a far more modest increase than those given to many other agencies, like the Education Department, that Biden sees as instrumental to his agenda.
“Let me put it this way,” said Thomas W. Chittum, a three-decade veteran of the bureau who now oversees all of its field operations. “It’s not easy being ATF.”
A Decades-Old Rift
The trouble between the gun-rights movement and the ATF began at least a half-century ago, when armed agents used a battering ram to knock down the door of an apartment in Silver Spring, Maryland. There had been a report that the resident, a gun collector named Kenyon Ballew, had been seen with several hand grenades.
Ballew was naked and carrying an antique long-barreled Colt revolver when ATF agents, along with local police officers, crashed through his door. They fired eight bullets, including one that lodged in his brain that left him partially paralyzed.
Ballew’s case helped instigate a decadeslong campaign by the gun lobby and its allies in Congress to undermine the agency.
In 1981, the new president, Ronald Reagan, a staunch NRA ally, announced a plan to abolish the ATF as a stand-alone agency and fold it into the Secret Service. But Reagan abandoned the plan at the urging of the NRA, which feared that the Secret Service would be a far less appealing foil.
“They’ve always loved to have an agency on the edge that is a whipping boy,” Richard Feldman, a former NRA lobbyist, said in an interview.
The bureau only grew as an object of loathing among many gun owners. In 1993, its agents raided the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, in an ill-prepared operation against a religious sect that had been stockpiling weapons. Four agents and six sect members died, and a long siege followed, ending with an FBI-led assault weeks later that left more than 70 dead. The ATF’s image never fully recovered.
Timothy McVeigh was spotted by an undercover detective selling baseball caps that had an image of the letters “ATF” speckled with bullet holes two years before he bombed a federal building in Oklahoma City in 1995, killing 168 people.
Soon afterward, the NRA put out a fundraising letter that referred to the ATF and other federal agents as “jackbooted government thugs.”
In response, former President George H.W. Bush resigned as a member of the group in protest, and even Wayne LaPierre, who has led the NRA for three decades, conceded in a 2019 interview with the Times that the letter had gone too far.
While he might regret the rhetoric, LaPierre nonetheless pursued a legislative strategy that eroded the ATF’s authority.
In 2003, the NRA helped draft the so-called Tiahrt amendment — named for its sponsor, former Rep. Todd Tiahrt, R-Kan. — which put severe restrictions on the ATF’s ability to share gun-tracing data. It also requires the FBI to destroy most gun purchase records within 24 hours after a background check, and it blocks the ATF from requiring dealers to provide records of their inventories.
The onslaught continued. In a series of moves that the NRA backed in 2011, the ATF was barred from transferring enforcement authority to the FBI or the Secret Service, and limits were put in place on unannounced inspections of gun dealers and on digitizing the agency’s records.
The agency was also barred from curtailing imports of shotguns with features that the ATF deemed questionable for widespread use.
Its image took a further hit after Operation Fast and Furious, a botched effort to crack down on gun trafficking that ended in 2011. The agency lost track of hundreds of weapons as it focused on bringing a bigger case against a gun-smuggling network linked to a Mexican drug gang. The Justice Department’s inspector general blamed the federal officials in the case, saying they were “permeated” by “a series of misguided strategies, tactics, errors in judgment and management failures.”
A rare victory came in 2018 when President Donald Trump, after a wave of mass shootings, supported an ATF-drafted ban on the use of “bump stocks,” an accessory that allows semi-automatic guns to fire at a faster rate. But the ban has been called into question by a recent court ruling.
Trump rejected many other gun measures, including a proposed ATF rule to crack down on pistol braces — devices that can be used to make AR-15 style pistols more like rifles. But the use of such a device in the recent mass shooting in Colorado has returned attention to the issue, leading Biden to take action on pistol braces.
Feuding Over Badges
The external pressures have been compounded by tensions stemming from the ATF’s dual personality as a law enforcement and regulatory agency responsible for monitoring the nation’s 75,000 shops, pawn brokers, manufacturers and importers that buy and sell guns.
A majority of ATF field employees are 2,600 gun-and-badge special agents who work on gun possession and trafficking cases, and join the FBI and local law enforcement in larger drug and criminal investigations.
But there is another, less glamorous side to the agency, one that gun safety groups see as equally if not more important to ATF’s mission — an unarmed civilian workforce of 728 field inspectors who have often felt neglected, maligned and marginalized.
Their story is best illustrated by a long-running internal feud over badges.
The inspectors had long argued that they needed to be armed, or, at the very least, issued the eagle-adorned badges carried by agents, to signal their authority to resentful and sometimes hostile gun dealers.
The inspectors — mockingly nicknamed “booger eaters” by some agents who see them as paper-pushing nerds — carried badges in the 1990s when the bureau was part of the Treasury Department. But they were stripped away in 2003 when the ATF migrated to the Department of Justice.
They lobbied for years to get them back until the acting director under President George W. Bush intervened to strike a compromise: smaller, rounded badges. But after bureau lawyers raised legal objections, those, too, were taken away, leaving each inspector with a plastic ID card and a tiny ATF-branded coin.
The issue still rankles, and some current and former inspectors sport replicas of the old Treasury-issued badges on their lapels.
The inspectors are among the most important sources of front line intelligence in tracking the loss, theft or diversion of firearms to criminals — by conducting audits of dealer inventories to determine the movement of every gun in their stock.
Although only a small percentage of weapons dealers are corrupt, the bad actors do a lot of damage — with 1.2% of gun dealers responsible for more than 57% of the guns later traced to crimes, according to bureau estimates.
Some gun shops, the ones deemed at lowest risk for illegal activity, are often not inspected for seven or eight years. Some can go without an inspection for a decade. Locations in “source” areas, places known to be the origin of trafficked guns, are often inspected more frequently, at least once every two or three years.
Even in a good year, the inspections cover fewer than 15% of licensed dealers, and the lack of consistent oversight has real-world consequences. A 2009 report by the Congressional Research Service found that “a substantial percentage of recovered firearms cannot be successfully traced for several reasons including poor record-keeping.”
The last major review of the program, conducted by the bureau’s inspector general in 2013, found that only 58% of dealers were inspected within the agency’s own five-year time frame, and that officials often “did not track” the actions of high-risk dealers.
Even when serious violations were found, the bureau did not always take aggressive action. Senior ATF officials regularly overruled field inspectors, allowing gun dealers who repeatedly failed inspections to keep their licenses, according to hundreds of internal reports obtained in 2018 through a Freedom of Information Act request made by the gun safety group Brady.
Over the past year, ATF’s inspection program virtually evaporated. Inspections plummeted from around 13,000 for the 2019 fiscal year to only 5,827 in 2020. Bureau officials attributed the drop-off to the coronavirus pandemic, which shut some sellers down for months, and the diversion of some personnel to counseling stores on protecting their inventory during the health crisis and the civil unrest.
Critics say those explanations are inadequate, given the huge spike in gun sales last year.
“We knew it was going to be bad, but it was far worse than we could have imagined,” said Joshua Scharff, legal counsel for Brady.
Some gun-safety groups have proposed merging the ATF’s law enforcement functions with the FBI to foster a focus on inspections, gun tracking and the bureau’s state-of-the-art ballistics-tracing system.
“They should focus on their unique value-adds, not on being a mini-FBI,” said Chelsea Parsons, lead author of a 2015 report by the Center for American Progress, a liberal Washington think tank, that argued for the merger.
The merger was briefly considered by the Obama administration but faced opposition from special agents, who are intensely proud of their work considering their size and shortage of resources.
“Our small size is, in some ways, our biggest strength,” Chittum said.
But the ATF’s kid-brother status has often made it difficult to compete for the attention of federal prosecutors who view all but the splashiest gun cases as a time-wasting headache, according to current and former agents.
Here, too, is a dilemma with its origins in the gun lobby’s success in erecting hurdles into law: To convict a dealer of a criminal violation, prosecutors must prove the dealer “willfully” intended to sell weapons for a criminal purpose, a high legal bar.
A Demand for Leadership
The mere presence of a permanent leader, like Chipman, has the potential to be transformative, former agency officials said.
“I was never the president’s guy, and being the president’s person means people are less likely to push back against you,” said Brandon, the former interim director. “It gives you a lot more street cred.”
Chipman served as a special agent during a 22-year ATF career that ended in 2010, first in the bureau’s hectic Detroit office, then in stints working the Interstate 95 corridor, the country’s biggest conduit for illegal firearms, and at bureau headquarters. There, he told the website The Trace, he observed “the catastrophic downsides of the gun lobby efforts to block the ATF from modernizing.”
Gabrielle Giffords, the former Arizona congresswoman who became a gun-control activist after being severely wounded in an assassination attempt, began pushing, along with other gun safety groups, for Chipman’s hiring in mid-November, shortly after Biden was elected, according to several people with knowledge of the situation.
But for weeks after the inauguration, the White House and its allies in the Senate stalled, in part to spare gun-friendly Democrats, like Sen. Joe Manchin III of West Virginia, from a tough vote when they were focused on the pandemic and spending bills.
The shootings that left 18 people dead in Atlanta and Boulder, Colorado, in mid-March changed that.
Soon afterward, Giffords wrote to Biden, asking him to meet with her to discuss Chipman. By that time, Biden’s chief of staff, Ron Klain, had thrown his support behind Chipman, and Biden later told Giffords that he was prepared “to fight” for the nomination, according to an administration official with knowledge of the exchange.
Almost immediately, the NRA announced plans to spend $2 million to defeat Chipman, cutting an ad targeting Sen. Susan Collins, a moderate Republican from Maine.
The Chipman pick “is poking people in the eye,” said Joshua Powell, a former top official at the NRA turned critic of its leadership. “I think the president would be better served by appointing a more apolitical person and building more bridges to bipartisanship.”
Chipman’s confirmation — the Senate hearing is expected to take place in late May — is anything but certain, with one West Wing official saying his “absolute ceiling” in the Senate was 51 or 52 yes votes. Manchin, a critical vote, has said he is favorable to Chipman, and administration officials insist that there is no reason to create a Plan B if his nomination founders.
Chipman, for his part, did not respond to a request for comment through an official with Giffords’ gun-control group.
The Martinsburg center, a nondescript single-story former IRS server farm on a thoroughfare known, appropriately enough, as Needy Road, is just a 90-minute drive north of Washington. But the political machinations consuming the capital are a distant echo here, subsumed by the demands of the job.
The recent rise in gun violence across the country has prompted an uptick in tracing cases: The center had its busiest month in history in March, with 49,000 requests, and ATF officials estimate it will complete 548,000 traces this year — although they have received funding to handle only 375,000, according to a bureau spokeswoman, April Langwell.
“We’re getting a lot more tracing requests, but there’s been no change in our budget,” said Arnold, who runs the division. “We can handle the most urgent cases in four or five hours. But our average completion times — they are starting to creep up.”
The soft-spoken Arnold, who has worked in Martinsburg since 2008, prefers to emphasize the positive, praising the skills of the 21 federal gun tracers who stitch together the fragmented histories of firearms, cross-indexing paper records with digitized documents containing serial numbers, points of purchase, names and addresses.
They are supported by contract workers who do the numbing work of retrieving and archiving the old records, flexing their overworked wrists as they thumb through sheafs of yellowed paper. A huge bottle of hand lotion sits at the center of the main room.
The paper records, which must be fed by hand into scanning machines to be stored as visual images, represent three distinct layers of dysfunction: the lack of a modern online filing portal, the prohibition against allowing records to be input as searchable data — so they would not have to be scanned like old family photos — and the failure of Congress to fund enough people to process the information as quickly as it comes in.
The rotating pool of 200 contract workers who unpack the boxes never quite know what they will find when they pop a lid. Sometimes, store owners urinate on documents in protest. It is not uncommon to find guns stashed by dealers in the files, or cash, or, in one memorable instance, an old hand grenade. It turned out to be a dud.
The tracers shrug it all off, and the challenges have cemented their status within the ATF as an elite unit with an uncanny capacity to reconstruct ownership records, sometimes in minutes, in the case of many mass shootings.
It is telling that among the only significant improvements to the process in recent years came not from Washington, but from big-box sporting-good shops that have worked with the bureau to make it easier to file their forms online.
But the digitization, purely voluntary, barely made a dent in the daily shipments of boxes. And none of the new filings can be stored in searchable form — just like the paper ones.