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New Report: Federal Agency Responsible for Enforcing Nation’s Gun Laws Is Beholden to Gun Industry

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) is captured by the gun industry, impeding its ability to fight surging gun violence

Washington DC — Today, Giffords Law Center published new research showing that ATF, the federal agency responsible for enforcing the nation’s gun laws, is a “captured agency” beholden to the gun industry. The report outlines how weak leadership at ATF—which has had only one Senate-confirmed director since 2006—has made the agency susceptible to industry pressure and undermined its ability to regulate surging US firearms sales.

ATF regularly allows irresponsible gun stores to remain open, defers to firearm manufacturers on the classification of increasingly deadly weaponry, and lacks public transparency critical for industry accountability. This month, President Biden’s nominee for ATF director, Steve Dettelbach, was confirmed by the Senate. The report’s findings reveal the urgent need for new leadership at ATF—and shed light on the dire state of the agency a Senate-confirmed director will need to turn around.

Lindsay Nichols, Federal Policy Director, Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence:

Gun violence is surging in America and the agency that Congress has deemed responsible for regulating the gun industry instead works hand in glove with them. Our new report shows how ATF prioritizes the gun lobby’s interests over the public safety of the American people. There are far too many examples in recent American history of the damage that captured agencies can do, including public health and environmental crises ranging from the opioid epidemic to oil spills. Government should work for the people, not for special interests. Under a Senate-confirmed director, the agency will finally be able to do the job it is supposed to do.”

For this report, Giffords Law Center analyzed data on gun manufacturing and sales over the past two decades, ATF’s record of inspecting gun stores and disciplining corrupt dealers, lobbying activity by the National Rifle Association (NRA) and the National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF), and the agency’s recently issued report on firearms trafficking. The analysis revealed:

  • ATF regularly defers to the gun industry on the classification of particular weapons, leading firearm dealers to spawn deadlier and deadlier devices. In the last 15 years,ATF deferred to manufacturers’ claims in exempting bump stocks and stabilizing braces from the National Firearms Act, despite clear evidence that these devices were intended to increase lethality and should have been regulated under the NFA. 
  • From 2016 to 2020, ATF allowed virtually all irresponsible gun stores to remain open—despite clear violations of the law. According to ATF’s most recent report, ATF noted violations of the law in 48% of the federal firearm licensee (FFL) compliance inspections it conducted between 2016 and 2020. Approximately 99% of FFLs found to have violated the law were allowed to stay open.
  • The agency’s refusal to provide information to the public about its activities has often shielded it from scrutiny, benefiting the gun industry at the expense of the public. In 2020, almost half of ATF’s Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests processed were backlogged, compared to less than one-fifth among agencies across the federal government.
  • ATF acts as a partner to the gun industry—including through its regular participation in the SHOT show—instead of a regulator. This has allowed the gun industry, and in particular NSSF, to use its partnership with ATF as a means of cultivating its image and avoiding bad press. The friendly relationship between ATF and NSSF is particularly troubling given NSSF’s opposition to many gun safety proposals supported by a majority of Americans.

Giffords Law Center recommends that Congress take the following actions to ensure ATF independence:

  • Repeal the current restrictions on ATF, including those on physical inventory requirements for gun dealers and on the release of gun trace data
  • Update the language of the National Firearms Act to address newer weapons designs
  • Exercise its oversight authority to address the issues raised in this report and hold ATF officials to account for their performance 

In addition, Giffords Law Center recommends that the Department of Justice (DOJ) provide stronger legal and administrative oversight of ATF leadership, ensure the licenses of irresponsible FFLS are properly revoked, and provide ATF with additional support for its gun trafficking investigations. DOJ should also boost ATF transparency, advocate for increased ATF funding, and vigorously defend ATF against gun lobby attacks. 
ATF is the primary agency charged with enforcing our nation’s gun laws. In the midst of surging gun violence, it is critical that the agency maintain its ability to oversee the gun industry, trace and investigate firearms used in gun crimes, and regulate surging US firearm sales. Giffords Law Center and other public safety advocates are pleased to see  new leadership at ATF and demand a different, better way forward for this essential agency.


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