The American gun industry has effectively “captured” the law enforcement agency charged with regulating it, according to a new report from the Giffords Law Center recommending a host of changes at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
The report comes just two days after Steve Dettelbach, a former federal prosecutor in Ohio, was sworn in as the ATF’s first permanent director in seven years. Dettelbach became just the second Senate-confirmed director in the agency’s history this month, overcoming gun industry opposition to win confirmation.
The report argues that gun industry groups, most prominently the National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF), influence the understaffed and underfunded agency’s policymaking and effectively turn the agency’s leadership into advocates for the gun industry within the Justice Department.
“For years, the gun industry, led by NSSF has developed an exceptionally cozy relationship with ATF, a relationship that has enabled the industry to exert tremendous influence over the agency,” the report’s author, Giffords’ Lindsay Nichols, writes. “This influence benefits the industry, but has undermined ATF’s ability to do its job: to protect public safety from gun violence by enforcing the laws regarding firearms and firearm sales.”
This close relationship, the report alleges, has led the ATF, which is already hobbled by a host of gun industry-backed restrictions, to take an extremely lenient approach to gun dealers who break the law and uncritically accept the industry’s classification of certain weapons.
Dettelbach, who was confirmed by a 48-46 vote in the Senate and attracted the support of two GOP senators, has suggested stricter enforcement in interviews since he was sworn in.
“The role of ATF is to enforce the laws as we get them from Congress,” Dettelbach said in an interview with PBS NewsHour on Wednesday. “That means also making sure that we have an effective, a fair and a consistent regulatory scheme, so that people who are following the law, law-abiding people, that they’re OK, and then the people who are breaking the law, who are breaking the rules, are held accountable.”
U.S. gun deaths reached a record high of 45,000 in 2020, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the country now has roughly 120 guns for every 100 Americans. A revitalized and robust ATF is a key plank of President Joe Biden’s efforts to reduce gun violence and limit mass shootings, but the recently passed bipartisan gun control law did relatively little to help the agency.
The report suggests the ATF essentially lives in fear of complaints from the gun industry and is willing to do the industry’s bidding to avoid political attacks. It points to a 2017 paper, written by a then-top ATF official and put out on ATF letterhead, that sought to “promote commerce and defend the Second Amendment,” and advocated for loosening regulations on gun imports and silencers ― two long-standing industry goals. Freedom of Information Act requests from gun control groups eventually revealed that a longtime gun industry lawyer helped write the paper.
The coziness extends to ATF’s classification of weapons and the handling of gun dealers that break the law. The agency relies heavily on industry input to decided whether a gun should be regulated under the National Firearms Act, frequently without ever giving gun safety advocates a chance to weigh in.
“The gun industry has taken advantage of this deference by spawning deadlier and deadlier devices, creating a slippery slope towards the acceptance of these devices by exploiting ATF’s unwillingness to draw the line,” Nichols writes, noting the ATF did not initially regulate either bump stocks, like the one used in the Las Vegas massacre in 2017, or stabilizing braces, like the one used in a shooting at a Colorado grocery store in 2021.
There are some efforts underway to beef up the agency. While a USA Today investigation in 2021 reported that 99% of gun dealers who were found to have broken the law had gotten to keep their licenses, Biden issued an executive order the same year promising a zero-tolerance approach.
“While these actions are a step in the right direction, it is clear that ATF needs a fundamental change in culture and leadership in order to shift its practices and shake off the influence of the industry,” Nichols writes.
The report points a finger at Congress and the Justice Department for failing to provide robust oversight of the agency, and at the ATF itself for failing to be more transparent with the public. It recommends repealing many restrictions designed to make the agency less effective, including a rule barring it from digitizing records and one blocking it from inspecting the same dealer more than once in a year, and it says the Justice Department should do more to protect ATF from gun industry attacks.
Some of the recommended changes are included in a bill from Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) and Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.) to overhaul and beef up the agency.
The legislation, which Van Hollen and Beyer introduced Thursday, is unlikely to pass.