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ATF Is Already Small. President Trump Wants It to Be Even Smaller.

The federal agency tasked with fighting gun violence has fewer agents than Las Vegas has cops.

And that’s not the only challenge for the brave men and women at ATF who are on the front lines of our gun violence crisis.

What do the bust of a California AK-47 smuggling ring, the takedown of an Islamophobic podiatrist in Florida, and the prosecution of an unlicensed gun dealer in Arizona last year have in common? All these cases depended on the work of dedicated Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) Special Agents.

We know America is facing a gun violence crisis. You are 25 times more likely to be the victim of gun homicide here than in other industrialized nations. That’s why the job of ATF is so important.

ATF is the lead law enforcement agency within the Department of Justice. As a special agent at the agency for 25 years, I was charged with helping to enforce the nation’s gun laws and regulate the firearms industry. A significant majority—about 80 percent—of ATF’s resources are focused on preventing gun violence, while the rest is spent regulating the explosives industry and investigating bombings and arsons.

Photo: David Chipman
Photo: David Chipman

There are challenges that come with serving at ATF—challenges that go beyond building cases against bad guys trying to do harm to our country. All too often, these dedicated men and women are squeezed: not by bad actors, but by their own government.

With gun violence rising to levels not seen in decades, Congress continues to demand the agency do more with less. That’s because Congress is tasked with determining the allocation of all discretionary spending for federal agencies. While violence prevention surged to the top of voters’ minds in 2018, congressional budgets have yet to catch up.

Consider ATF’s budget in 2017. It stood at only $1.25 billion for 5,113 ATF employees.

Here are some sobering facts about the state of the ATF in 2019:

  • ATF has two fewer employees than it did in 2002.
  • There are 2,623 special agents—that’s fewer law enforcement officers than the Las Vegas Police Department has on the job.
  • 828 industry investigators are tasked with regulating 134,738 Federal Firearm Licensees. That’s only two more since 1972.

Here’s one more number for you. Over the past decade, it is estimated that over 100 million additional firearms have entered civilian hands as ATF’s staffing flatlined.

This week, ATF Deputy Director Thomas Brandon testified before a House Appropriations subcommittee. It was the first time in over a decade the committee took an active look at how enforcement of gun violence prevention is being carried out. This marks progress, but it remains to be seen if the agency will see any new support as a result of this hearing—especially since Brandon declared that if President Trump’s budget proposal for Fiscal Year 2020 passed, they would have to cut 377 employees.

Still, ATF agents are continuing to make cases and put bad actors away. They have a job to do and won’t quit. The stakes in the fight against gun violence are too high. It’s time for Congress and the president to realize this and give ATF the resources it deserves.

 Editor’s note: On June 25, 2019, the House majority passed a spending bill that boosted funding for both the ATF and FBI to better carry out their lifesaving work.