The startling rise of violence in Mexico and along the southwest border of the United States has sharpened the focus on a long-existing problem neither Congress nor a succession of presidents has been willing to resolve — the startling lack of manpower in a key agency in what promises to be a long battle.

Since 1972 when the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (and now Explosives) was divorced from the Internal Revenue Service and turned into a separate, distinct entity in the Treasury department, there has been essentially no growth in the number of agents. While other law enforcement agencies have doubled and tripled in size, ATF’s numbers have remained flat at 2,500 despite the escalation in violent crime nationwide and the fact it has been assigned an expanded role by the Justice department where it was transferred during the administration of George W. Bush. Still, its agent productivity has been amazingly high, drawing praise from FBI Director Robert Mueller.

But the imbalance in numbers has been increasingly noticeable as the FBI has turned its focus to white collar crime, terrorism and counter intelligence, leaving much of the effort to control burgeoning drug-inspired gun violence to the ATF. With the Mexican cartels receiving 90 percent of their weapons from the United States largely through street gangs here, ATF is being forced to operate with one hand tied behind its back.

Why? The answer is rooted in the national paranoia about firearms.

For decades the gun lobby, particularly the powerful National Rifle Association with its iron grip on Congress, has used the ATF as a boogeyman that threatens the constitutional right of every American to bear arms. Left alone, the gun barons claim, ATF would force the registration of all firearms. At times the NRA has drawn a picture of black booted ATF storm troopers crashing down the doors of innocent citizens to confiscate the weapons they maintain for the protection of their families. The 1993 assault on the Branch Davidian compound at Waco, Texas, has been held up as a case in point, although after the first day when four federal agents were murdered the operation belonged to the FBI.

The virulent attacks on ATF have lessened considerably as it has become clear they were the worst kind of extremist exaggerations and distortions issued for purely political reasons. However, the lingering effect in Congress has been to curtail efforts to bring the agency up to par in numbers with other federal law enforcement groups. ATF’s inspection force is so overwhelmed it has little impact and its ability to maintain computerized records has been hamstrung at every turn. There are about 650 non-agent inspectors to handle 68,000 licensed gun dealers, some 6,700 hundred of them along the border with Mexico.

Millions of dollars in wire transfers can reach the drug kings in Juarez and Tijuana and other Mexican border towns virtually overnight from Portland, Ore., to Portland, Me. And it occurs every day. With so much cash, the cartels can buy thousands of U.S. guns almost with impunity. The victims are too numerous to count, thousand upon thousands, in an orgy of mayhem that has destroyed a once thriving tourist business between the two countries. While most of the violence has been to Mexican citizens, it is stretching northward at a startling clip.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton pledged to Mexican officials during a recent trip there that the Obama administration would do everything possible to help solve the dilemma. The Southwest Border Initiative includes sending a combined agency task force of more than 600 south, to the river’s edge. Great! But the problem is as far north as the Canadian border and the only national agency equipped to handle that is completely undermanned.

It will be interesting to see whether the White House is brave enough to take on the NRA to back up Clinton’s pledge by supporting a sizable increase in ATF’s agent force. In the history of federal law enforcement there always has been one crisis time when each agency has expanded. That is true for the FBI, the DEA, the Border Patrol and so forth. It’s ATF’s time, but don’t hold your breath.

(E-mail Dan K. Thomasson, former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service, at thomassondan(at)

Comments are closed.