The deputy director for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) has launched a broadside against President Donald Trump’s 2020 budget proposal, saying it would severely diminish the agency’s ability to help investigate and combat gun violence.
The proposal, rolled out earlier this week, would cut the Department of Justice budget, which oversees the ATF, by 2 percent, to $29.2 billion.
Thomas E. Brandon spoke to the House Appropriations Committee on Wednesday warning that the budget cut proposal, if implemented, would force the ATF to “let go of 377 positions.”
“ATF won’t be as able to do what it can do today,” Brandon said. “You hear people say trim the fat — well then we trimmed into muscle, now we’re trimming into bone. I can’t end my career as an ATF agent who loves America… and know the consequence of ATF not being properly funded.”
He added, “We’ve been robbing Peter to pay Paul to deliver on everything. It’s the drip, drip, drip and now we’re cutting into bone… hopefully you can see I’m not trying to be political, I’m trying to be honest.”
In his opening statement, Brandon highlighted some of the important ways in which the ATF attempts to tackle gun violence, including its National Integrated Ballistic Information Network (NIBIN), a nationwide network for tracking shell casings; its efforts to recover stolen firearms; and its role, alongside the FBI, in processing gun background checks and “retrieving firearms held by prohibited persons.”
Despite its important role, the ATF remains one of the smallest federal law enforcement agencies, currently employing roughly 5,000 people. The Secret Service, by comparison, has nearly 7,000 employees, the Drug Enforcement Administration 10,000, and the FBI 35,000.
The ATF’s work has also been repeatedly hindered by laws designed to prevent any sort of national database for tracing firearms. The ATF National Tracing Center in West Virginia, for instance, where the Bureau keeps sales records from federally-licensed gun dealers that have closed, is prohibited from maintaining a broad digital database of firearms purchases and ownership. The center is instead full of thousands of boxes of paper records, which makes tracing weapons, either as part of a federal investigation or in partnership with local police, an extremely arduous task.
Daniel Webster, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research, told ThinkProgress this week that further budget cuts would only undermine the agency’s ability to help prevent gun violence.
“ATF was already understaffed to perform their critical duties enforcing federal gun laws,” Webster said. “Cuts of this nature could result in a reduced capacity to prevent the diversion of guns to violent criminals, reign in interstate gun trafficking, and arrest violent armed criminals.”
The ATF has not been without recent controversies. In 2017 the New York Times reported that the Bureau had run a slush fund, used to finance undercover organizations — all of which was paid for by legally dubious cigarette sales. During the Obama administration the ATF came under fire for its involvement with Operation Fast and Furious, when the Bureau allowed thousands of firearms to be smuggled into Mexico under the guise of tracking illegal gun traffickers. Many of the weapons ended up in the hands of cartels, and two were linked to the murder of a Border Patrol Agent.
These events have served to deepen mistrust of the Bureau among the pro-gun community, where it was already widely disparaged thanks to its role in helping to regulate guns and its involvement with the disastrous 1993 Waco Siege, in which an AFT raid of a compound belonging to a splinter branch of the Seventh-day Adventist Church resulted in 10 deaths.
On Wednesday, Brandon sought to reaffirm the importance of the ATF’s mission, despite its other problems.
“We know that in order to fight violent crime, we must be an integrated and resourceful organization, nimble in responding to an ever-changing environment with technological sophistication,” he said. “ATF personnel know that the safety of the American citizens we serve has no higher priority.”
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