Cases recommended for prosecution by ATF have declined from a high of 17,877 in 2004 under Mr. Bush to about 12,066 last year, the data compiled by Syracuse University and reviewed by the Times shows.
Federal prosecutors, current and former ATF agents and gun law experts told The Timesthat the downward trend in ATF-related prosecutions primarily reflects a shift in policy sentiments inside the Obama Justice Department away from tracking down one-off violent offenders and toward prosecuting more complicated regulatory-type cases, which take longer to develop.
"Within the later part of the Bush years, case selections within the ATF have gone from mostly violent crime cases – which is their forte – toward the regulatory, where they look at dealers, manufacturers and trafficking cases – and they take a lot more time to develop," said Robert Sanders, a former ATF assistant director. "The agencies philosophy has shifted to guns are the problem, and access to guns are the problem, rather than the criminal being the direct indicator of crime."
The cultural shift began after the gun-fighting agency merged its regulatory division – which mostly was comprised of government bureaucrats focused on gun registries and dealer approvals – with its law-enforcement division, a group of active police officers focused on violent street-crime, Mr. Sanders said.
Over time, the law-enforcement guys would leave the agency – they typically have a 20-year career span – whereas the regulatory bureaucrats would stay and often make it to the top levels of leadership, with the ability to influence resources and caseloads toward their favored work. Of the last six ATF directors, including current director B. Todd Jones, only two – Ronnie Carter and Edgar Domenech – have had law-enforcement experience at the street level.
"The culture within the ATF – the dominate force – the driver of policy within the agency is for more regulation," Mr. Sanders said. "Rewards and punishments are geared toward it, leadership is onboard with it, so now it's more or less become a regulatory agency."
Indeed, among the lead charges out of ATF, the fastest growing in terms of DOJ prosecutions – up 129 percent this year alone – is Title 26, U.S. Code Section 5845 that involves "Tax on Making Firearms," according to Syracuse University data. Compared to five years ago, the statute is up 243 percent.
Another statute gaining traction is prosecuting gun charges under the Hobbs Act – which takes aim at the interstate commerce of firearms. It is on-track this year to becoming the third most prosecuted gun statute, whereas it was the fifth most frequently invoked five years ago, seventh a decade ago, and 13th two decades ago.
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