Editorial Board

Congressional Cowardice on Guns, Again

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has a new administrator. The director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau is finally official, as is the secretary of the Department of Labor. The president of the all-important U.S. Export-Import Bank is safely enjoying his second term.

Notably absent from this list of presidential appointees -- newly confirmed last week by the U.S. Senate after a bipartisan deal on filibusters -- is a new director for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. Need we expend much energy wondering why?

The ATF hasn’t had a director since 2006, when the gun lobby worked its peculiar magic and, lo and behold, the reauthorization of the Patriot Act included a new requirement that the director of the ATF be confirmed by the Senate -- despite the fact that the director’s boss, the attorney general, already requires Senate confirmation.

Seven years later, no one has ever been confirmed as ATF director. President George W. Bush’s nominee, ATF Acting Director Michael Sullivan, was deemed “overly zealous” by the National Rifle Association. When in 2010 President Barack Obama nominated veteran ATF agent Andrew Traver to be the agency’s director, the NRA denounced his “anti-gun activities.” His nomination, too, went nowhere.

Obama -- who has been the subject of a spectacularly lucrative gun-lobby campaign to convince gun aficionados that he could at any moment confiscate their firearms -- apparently decided that the lobby’s grip on Congress made it pointless to nominate anyone else. He waited until his second term -- and after the massacre in December 2012 in Newtown, Connecticut -- before proposing U.S. Attorney B. Todd Jones as ATF director. It is Jones’ nomination that is now stalled in the Senate.

Why is the director of the ATF so important? The ATF is responsible for conducting regulatory inspections of the nation’s more than 123,000 licensed gun dealers. As a Department of Justice report released in April made clear, the agency is so hindered by congressionally imposed obstacles and “insufficient investigator resources” that it can’t adequately perform its duties. In addition to preventing the ATF from keeping computerized records of gun transactions, Congress passed legislation prohibiting the agency from inspecting a licensed gun dealer more than once a year. Because the ATF has only 2,500 agents to police guns, tobacco, alcohol and explosives, the majority of gun dealers received no inspection at all from the understaffed agency over a five-year period.

This failure comes at a price. From 2004 to 2011, the nation’s gun shops lost 174,679 guns through theft or loss (that’s the official number; actual losses are undoubtedly much higher). It’s unknown how many of these ended up in the possession of criminals. Even when the ATF concludes that a gun dealer is not complying with the law, it can take years to revoke a license. The practical consequence is that rogue gun dealers can supply criminals for years without worrying about official disruptions to their business.

Stein’s Law, attributed to economist Herbert Stein, stipulates that if something can’t go on forever, it won’t. So it is with gun policy. Congress can’t enable the recklessness and greed of the gun lobby in perpetuity. At some point, it will stop. The question is how long it will take, and in what form.

Lawmakers had a chance to stand up to the NRA by passing background-check legislation this spring. They failed. The Jones nomination now awaits action. Congress’s indulgence of firearm fanaticism and political cowardice will have to end somewhere. Maybe the first modest step can be confirming the director of the ATF.

    To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net .

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