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Published: Wednesday, 10/27/2010

Shackling the ATF

Taking and tracking inventory is a basic component of many businesses. Imagine, for example, a pharmacy that routinely could not account for its drugs. The store would quickly run into trouble with regulators.

Not so gun dealers.

Since 2005, 113,642 guns have been reported missing from the thousands of gun shops and dealers throughout the country. It is not known whether these guns were lost, stolen, sold on the black market, or delivered to felons or other prohibited users.

Yet the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) is barred by law from requiring dealers to conduct inventories. That restriction insulates gun sellers from even minor scrutiny at the possible expense of public safety.

This is but one inane and dangerous provision that prevents the nation's federal gun regulator from doing its job. A Washington Post series on gun regulations documented other ways in which the ATF has been sabotaged, largely at the hands of a muscular and obstinate gun lobby and with the complicity of Democrats and Republicans alike who are afraid of alienating this powerful constituency.

The agency has been leaderless for four years. President Obama has thus far failed to nominate an ATF chief, and Congress blocked confirmation of President George W. Bush's nominee. The agency has been crippled by a severe staff shortage, even as other federal law enforcement organizations have grown.

Regulations make it exceedingly difficult to crack down on even chronically irresponsible dealers, who are often able to delay punishment or avert consequences altogether. And the gun lobby is not satisfied: Legislation pending before Congress and erroneously labeled the “ATF modernization bill” would make it even tougher to hold wayward dealers accountable.

As the U.S. Supreme Court ruled two years ago, the Constitution protects an individual's right to keep and bear arms. But limits or conditions attach to even fundamental rights. For far too long, lawmakers have catered to the whims of the gun lobby, with little or no thought for public safety.

— Washington Post



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