ATF, Enforcer of Gun Laws, Lost 'Thousands of Firearms, Firearm Parts' to Thieves
The agency should be abolished and its employees sent to seek jobs in the private sector.
With inflation, prices are up pretty much across the board, but if you're looking for a new gun for recreation or self-defense, here's a hint: the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) is offering them at an absolute steal. Seriously, the federal agency tasked with enforcing firearms regulations has such poor security that thousands of guns and gun parts once in its possession disappeared in the hands of thieves. And it has yet to fully implement recommended reforms.
"Since September 2015, the ATF has utilized the National Disposal Branch (NDB), formerly the National Firearms and Ammunition Destruction (NFAD) Branch, to centralize and streamline the disposal process of forfeited and ATF-owned firearms. Each year, the ATF destroys thousands of firearms at the NDB," the U.S. Justice Department's Inspector General noted in announcing a recent report. "The DOJ Office of the Inspector General (OIG) undertook this audit following the discovery that thousands of firearms, firearm parts, and ammunition had been stolen from NFAD from 2016 to 2019."
So, for three years, the agency that enforces every petty and intrusive federal regulation regarding firearms (as well as alcohol, tobacco, and explosives) let its own security personnel ("a DHS contract security guard was convicted in connection with these thefts") pilfer its inventory.
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Strictly speaking, the report isn't about the thefts themselves, which were discovered by accident during a traffic stop. The recent report delved into the ATF's progress in implementing anything resembling the security procedures it requires of the private gun dealers it oversees—or maybe just something more challenging than leaving "intact weapons … in unsecured boxes and unlocked containers." So, how is the ATF doing at storing firearms at least as securely as you might expect of private businesses?
"The ATF has implemented several new control procedures to reduce the risk of firearm thefts," the report found. "However, the ATF has not implemented all improvements to NDB operations recommended over three years ago."
Among other challenges, even well after the disposal facility was identified as a grab-bag for the firearms black market (the convicted security guard, Christopher Lee Yates, sold what he stole), the Inspector General "identified several ATF policies regarding firearm storage and evidence tracking with which the NDB is not in compliance." Of course, implementing new security measures doesn't matter much when "staff does not consistently adhere to established operating procedures in place to mitigate the risk of firearms being lost or stolen. Specifically, we observed, in the NDB facility surveillance footage, staff occasionally circumventing controls pertaining to facility and vault access solely for the sake of convenience."
Staff stored guns on top of vaults instead of inside them, left keys lying around, propped exterior doors open, didn't sign people in and out, and otherwise engaged in more sloppiness than you might expect of people who had already been caught with their pants down and were told to tighten things up. Then again, government workers aren't generally held to the same standards as the private sector.
The ATF has long had an adversarial relationship with gun owners and sellers, but last year, the Biden administration deliberately stepped up the hostilities.
"The Justice Department is announcing a new policy to underscore zero tolerance for willful violations of the law by federally licensed firearms dealers that put public safety at risk," the White House announced in 2021. "Absent extraordinary circumstances that would need to be justified to the Director, ATF will seek to revoke the licenses of dealers the first time that they violate federal law."
The ATF was obviously listening and eager to please the administration.
"The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives revoked gun store licenses at a higher rate in 2022 than in any year since 2006," The Trace, "the only newsroom dedicated to covering gun violence," trumpeted earlier this month. "The total more than triples the number of licenses revoked in 2021, when a similar number of dealers were inspected."
But, while some of the violations that could get a license to sell firearms revoked are potentially serious, many are of the sort best described as bureaucratic missteps.
"At the direction of the Biden administration, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) appears to be revoking the licenses of firearm dealers for even minor paperwork violations," AmmoLand, which covers shooting sports, observed in May. After reviewing the list of criteria for targeting gun dealers, AmmoLand pointed out that "'falsifying records' is a very broad category that can include making simple errors on Form 4473, and 'failing to respond to a trace request' could result from simply missing an attempted contact by ATF."
In particular, it should be noted, the ATF requires that "Any Federal Firearms Licensee (FFL) who has knowledge of the theft or loss of any firearms from their inventory must report such theft or loss within 48 hours of discovery to ATF and to the local law enforcement agency." These reports must "be made by telephone and in writing to ATF."
The ATF also publishes a flyer on "Loss Prevention for Firearms Retailers" that includes handy tips about records-keeping, locking stuff up, and not employing sketchy people. You have to wonder what the ATF would say about a private facility that was ripped off for years on end by its own staffers and still failed to implement serious security measures after the fact. I expect that the consequences would be a bit more serious than a single arrest and then business as usual despite a tut-tutting reprimand.
The nicest thing you can say about the ATF is that it's an unserious and unaccountable bureaucracy. Often it's explicitly contemptible, such as during the Fast-and-Furious gun-walking scandal, and its setting up mentally disabled youths to take the fall during gun-and-drug stings. After those abuses of individual rights and public trust, the failings of the National Disposal Branch almost pale by comparison.
The theft of "thousands of firearms, firearm parts, and ammunition" from the federal body tasked with enforcing firearms regulations on the private sector is just further evidence that the ATF has no good excuse for existing. Like so many other government agencies, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives should be abolished, and its employees sent into the world to seek honest jobs in the private sector, if anybody will have them.