SF Gate – by Dan Freedman
For gun rights advocates, distrust toward the federal agency charged with enforcing firearms laws dates from a single raid on a gun collector’s apartment.
It was a 1971 raid by agents of what was then the Division of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms on the apartment of Kenyon Ballew in Silver Spring, Md. The agents had been tipped by a burglary suspect that guns and grenades were stashed there.
They broke down the door with a battering ram to execute a search warrant, and when Ballew, naked, bolted from a bathtub and grabbed an 1847 Colt revolver, agents shot him in the head. He was left permanently disabled and was never charged with a crime.
“It took hold in the firearms community,” said Jeff Knox, head of the Arizona-based Firearms Coalition, whose father, Neal Knox, was instrumental in turning the National Rifle Association into a sharp-edged political organization. “There was a sense of outrage – ‘It could have been you or me.’ ”
What followed was a cascade of horror stories involving agents bursting through the doors of law-abiding gun owners, often for nothing more than possessing weapons in technical violation of gun laws.
ATF officials at the time dismissed the cases as aberrations. But they energized a militant wing of the NRA that seized control of the group in 1977, a takeover that forever changed the way the nation’s chief enforcer of gun laws does its job.
Neal Knox, who emerged as the NRA’s chief lobbyist in 1978, “declared war” on ATF. When the ATF proposed funding for computerization and other measures to speed up gun tracing, the NRA and its allies on Capitol Hill accused the ATF of secretly building a national gun registry, which Knox saw as a precursor to firearms confiscation.
Even today, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives uses phone calls and paper records to connect crime gun serial numbers to original purchasers. Congress has barred the agency from computerizing the records.
The NRA also scored a long-lasting victory in the 1986 Firearms Owners Protection Act, which eased rules so individuals could sell weapons from private collections without possessing a federal firearms license.
That redefinition of what it meant to be “engaged in the business” of selling firearms opened up what came to be known as the “gun-show loophole,” in which private sellers circumvent paperwork and background-check requirements imposed on licensees. To this day it “handcuffs the ATF,” as gun-control advocate Dennis Henigan put it.
In recent years, the ATF has made a peace of sorts with the NRA: It grows in areas the NRA does not view as inimical to gun rights, and pulls back in areas they view as threatening.
Laboratory research aiding arson and explosives investigations has been a growth area. So has ballistics imaging – the ATF’s National Integrated Ballistics Information Network, established in 1999, helps police link shell casings found at crime scenes to specific guns.
But numbers of personnel involved in firearms dealer inspections have essentially remained stationary for decades while the number of licensees peaked at 284,000 in 1993, dropped to a low of 103,000 in 2000, and is now back up to 137,000.
The 1993 debacle in Waco, Texas, in which religious zealot David Koresh and his followers were wiped out in a confrontation with the FBI and ATF, was a turning point for the agency. John Magaw became ATF director that year and steered the bureau toward greater involvement in combatting violent gun crime, backing up state and local police. He was less interested in monitoring gun dealers and independent sales.
His primary instruction to ATF: “We need to be seen as a neutral agency, not pro-gun and not anti-gun.”
ATF eventually put its focus on identifying and arresting “the worst of the worst.”
ATF’s current Frontline strategy, targeting gun criminals through “intelligence-driven” investigative techniques, is only the latest iteration of previous initiatives, said Michael Bouchard, who retired in 2007 as ATF assistant director for field operations.
“It was the only way we could survive,” Bouchard said.
The strategies had the ancillary benefit of not offending the NRA.
“The theme here, if there is one, is if you target tax dollars at the criminal element, we’ll support you,” said NRA lobbyist Jim Baker. “If you target law-abiding people trying to engage in legitimate business who forgot to cross a ‘t’ or dot an ‘i,’ we won’t support you.”
ATF got the message – investigations of criminal gangs and “straw purchasers” who buy guns for them are OK; investigations of nonviolent gun owners and dealers, not so much.
“Intellectually we didn’t look at it that way – though looking back, that’s what happened,” Magaw said. “It wasn’t, ‘Don’t rile NRA’ as much as let’s look at what we should be doing. NRA complained about 40 to 50 cases (involving allegations of ATF overzealousness) and, doggone, I would complain, too.”
While ATF still investigates gun dealers and owners when necessary, the overall retreat from these cases has come at a cost. ATF reticence on revoking the licenses of firearms dealers who supply criminals is partly a matter of the agency lacking the resources or legal authority to do regular gun-store inspections.
“The gun lobby has scared ATF,” he said. “That’s not a resource question and it’s not even a question of law. It’s a cultural problem.”
Dan Freedman is a reporter in the Hearst Newspapers Washingtonbureau.