A new investigation from the Trace shows that the ATF rarely enforces the law

A few years ago, an investigation from The New York Times revealed how the US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives had a basically unrestricted checkbook, which was fragrantly abused by the bureau at large. ATF agents freely mingled federal funds with private businesses and even their own private lives, mostly under the guise of "undercover work," from which some of them even made personal profits as they orchestrated their own variations on the same black market deals they were supposed to be investigating:

Thousands of pages of newly unsealed records reveal a widespread scheme — a highly unorthodox merger of an undercover law enforcement operation and a legitimate business. What began as a way to catch black-market cigarette dealers quickly transformed into a nearly untraceable A.T.F. slush fund that agents from around the country could tap.

The spending was not limited to investigative expenses. Two informants made $6 million each. One agent steered hundreds of thousands of dollars in real estate, electronics and money to his church and his children's sports teams, records show.

Despite these revelations, one might still try to insist that the ATF is largely a force for good. Maybe these kinds of labyrinthine undercover investigations occasionally go awry; maybe they drop the ball on the "tobacco" part of their name sometimes. But they must be making some valuable contribution to the regulation of alcohol and/or firearms, right?

According to a massive new investigation from The Trace and USA Today, the ATF does occasionally investigate the illegal trade of firearms. But in most situations, when they find evidence of illicit activity, they … just kind of leave it behind with a slap on the wrist:

Reporters spent more than a year analyzing documents from nearly 2,000 gun dealer inspections that uncovered violations from 2015 to 2017. The reports showed some dealers outright flouting the rules, selling weapons to convicted felons and domestic abusers, lying to investigators and fudging records to mask their unlawful conduct. In many cases when the ATF caught dealers breaking the law, the agency issued warnings, sometimes repeatedly, and allowed the stores to operate for months or years. Others are still selling guns to this day. 

More than half of all stores with violations transferred guns without running a background check correctly, waiting for the check to finish or properly recording the results. More than 200 dealers were cited for selling guns to people who indicated on background check paperwork that they were prohibited from owning them. Dozens made false statements in official records, a violation that includes facilitating illegal straw purchases. 

It's worth reading both articles in full just to grasp the full scope of the harrowing ineptitude at play. There are gun shops that were investigated multiple times for illegal trafficking, with upwards of 600 firearms unaccounted for — and each time, the agency just gave them a warning. When they finally caught the owner of the shop in the act of "aiding and abetting a false statement relating to purchases," he was sentenced to 10 months in prison, and that was the end of it.

The Trace report comes amidst the confirmation hearings for David Chipman, President Biden's pick to be the new director of ATF. If the Senate confirms his appointment, he would be the first permanent director of the agency since 2015, and only the second to ever receive Senate approval. But even that's a big if.

After repeated ATF warnings, gun dealers can count on the agency to back off; sometimes firearms flow to criminals [Brian Freskos, Daniel Nass and Alain Stephens for The Trace; Nick Penzenstadler for USA Today]

'I Smell Cash': How the A.T.F. Spent Millions Unchecked [Matt Apuzzo / The New York Times]

Image: Public Domain via US Department of State

Full Disclosure: I also write for Wirecutter, which is part of the New York Times Company, which publishes The New York Times; Matt Apuzzo, who wrote the aforementioned Times article, was a mentor of mine through the Times Company.