The massacre of 20 schoolchildren and six adults at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., has placed gun violence squarely at the front of the national agenda. Long-skeptical legislators have expressed a new openness to at least consider laws that might keep guns out of the hands of criminals and the mentally ill. Polls show increased support for some new restraints on guns. And just a month after the massacre, President Obama signed nearly two dozen executive actions and proposed a package of legislative initiatives that together represent the most comprehensive effort in decades to reduce what he called "the broader epidemic of gun violence in this country."
Conspicuously absent from the president's agenda, however, is much of anything that might address the stunning and widespread weaknesses that have for years crippled the federal agency responsible for enforcing the nation's gun laws -- the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. Yes, the president announced his nomination of a full-time director for the long-leaderless agency --widely known as ATF -- and some of the new proposals do tacitly acknowledge a number of the agency's long-standing challenges. But the initiatives are modest, and Congress may not go along with any of them. So for now, the bureau remains systematically hobbled by purposeful restrictions, flimsy laws, impotent leadership and paltry budgets. And it's not at all clear there's anything on the horizon that would change that situation.
"If you want an agency to be small and ineffective at what it does, the ATF is really the model," says Robert J. Spitzer, author of The Politics of Gun Control. Spitzer, a political science professor at the State University of New York College at Cortland, says the ATF's critics, in particular the National Rifle Association (NRA), have been "extremely successful at demonizing, belittling and hemming in the ATF as a government regulatory agency." The result, he says, is an agency with insufficient staff and resources, whose agents are "hamstrung" by laws and rules that make it difficult or impossible to fulfill their mission.