Let ATF do its job on gun laws

In the current debate about guns in America, one point most everyone agrees on is the United States should enforce existing gun laws. Yet Congress has put handcuffs on the very government agency charged with investigating gun trafficking and stopping the flow of guns to criminals, individuals with mental illness and people who might hurt themselves with guns. 

One common-sense step that Congress could take right away would be to take off these handcuffs and provide the federal government with the same kind of tools to share information and investigate gun trafficking that the government has for most other criminal investigations.  


One way our nation can make progress in addressing gun violence is to identify the areas where we can move forward quickly while debating the broader issues. That is why Rep. Charles B. Rangel (D-N.Y.) introduced the “Enforce Existing Gun Laws Act” in April of this year and why the 70-year-old Quaker lobby in the public interest that Diane Randall directs supports this legislation.

 Here’s the problem we’re trying to solve in a nutshell: There are 100,000 licensed firearms dealers in the United States and an estimated 300 million guns. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), the federal agency responsible for enforcing gun laws and limiting gun trafficking, has just 2,500 agents and 800 inspectors. At its current capacity, the ATF is only able to inspect each licensed firearms dealer once every 10 years. 

Perhaps more importantly, restrictions put in place by Congress severely limit the federal government’s ability to identify, investigate and prosecute illegal firearms transactions. Congress could lift these restrictions very quickly by passing the Enforce Existing Gun Laws Act.

The common-sense reforms in this legislation would allow the ATF to consolidate and centralize gun dealer records so that when a crime is committed or when gun trafficking is discovered, the ATF and other government agencies can quickly trace the gun’s purchase history and identify the criminals involved and the mistakes that may have been made in the approval of purchases. 

The legislation would also require gun dealers to inventory their guns once a year and allow the ATF to conduct repeated inspections of gun dealers when there is a pattern of suspicious behavior. Current law limits the ATF to one routine inspection of each gun dealer per year. 

The patchwork of congressional restrictions on investigating gun trafficking was inserted at many different points over the past few years, and today it appears less than coherent, and in several places, counterproductive. For instance, one measure approved by Congress prohibits the ATF, the agency responsible for enforcing gun laws, from drawing “broad conclusions about firearms-related crimes” in official reports. 

These changes are not dramatic or radical. These reforms would have virtually no impact on the vast majority of gun owners in our country who are law abiding citizens who regularly submit information for background checks and follow the laws on the sale of guns.  

But these changes would be immensely helpful in tracking gun traffickers and other criminals. We know from law enforcement officials that the most successful investigations of crimes don’t happen from breaking down doors, gun drawn charges into homes or high-speed car chases. Much of what our law enforcement officials do day-in and day-out is the patient, dedicated and painstakingly difficult job of following up leads and tracking the chain of criminal activity. 

Now is the time for Congress to empower the ATF and give those dedicated law enforcement professionals the resources they need to do their job and protect our nation. We will be working together to pass this legislation over the next few months. Citizens who care about effective law enforcement should ask their elected officials to support this legislation. 

Rangel, a Korean War veteran, represents the 13th congressional district in New York. Randall is the executive secretary of the Friends Committee on National Legislation, a 70-year-old Quaker lobby in the public interest.