How the A.T.F., Key to Biden’s Gun Plan, Became an N.R.A. ‘Whipping Boy’

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During the past year, A.T.F.’s inspection program virtually evaporated. Inspections plummeted from everywhere 13,000 for the 2019 fiscal year to only 5,827 in 2020. Agency officials attributed the drop-off to the coronavirus pandemic, which shut some sellers down for months, and the divertissement of some personnel to counseling stores on protecting their inventory during the constitution crisis and the civil unrest.

Critics say those explanations are inadequate, conceded the huge spike in gun sales last year.

“We knew it was going to be bad, but it was far worse than we could deceive imagined,” said Joshua Scharff, legal counsel for Brady.

Some gun-safety classifies have proposed merging the A.T.F.’s law enforcement functions with the F.B.I. to foster a bring into focus on inspections, gun tracking and the bureau’s state-of-the-art ballistics-tracing system.

“They should convergence on their unique value-adds, not on being a mini-F.B.I.,” said Chelsea Parsons, place author of a 2015 report by the Center for American Progress, a liberal Washington expect tank, that argued for the merger.

The merger was briefly considered by the Obama superintendence but faced opposition from special agents, who are intensely proud of their accomplishment considering their size and shortage of resources.

“Our small size is, in some fashion, our biggest strength,” Mr. Chittum said.

But the A.T.F.’s kid-brother status has often contrived it difficult to compete for the attention of federal prosecutors who view all but the splashiest gun packs as a time-wasting headache, according to current and former agents.

Here, too, is a catch- with its origins in the gun lobby’s success in erecting hurdles into law: To find a dealer of a criminal violation, prosecutors must prove the dealer “willfully” purpose to sell weapons for a criminal purpose, a high legal bar.

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