While President Obama decries gun violence and presses for more laws to restrict ownership, his Justice Department has prosecuted 25 percent fewer cases referred by the main law enforcement agency charged with reducing firearms violence across the country, a computer analysis of U.S. prosecution data shows.
Federal prosecutors brought a total of 5,082 gun violation cases in 2013 recommended by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, compared with 6,791 during the last year of George W. Bush’s presidency in 2008, according to data obtained from the Executive Office of U.S. Attorneys.
Syracuse University’s Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, regarded as one of the premier researchers on federal prosecution performances and trends, analyzed the data at the request of The Washington Times.
U.S. attorneys have been slowing gun prosecutions even further, with 2,598 brought in the first seven months of this fiscal year. The pace of activity puts the Justice Department on track to prosecute the fewest ATF cases since 2000, well before the drug gang wars in Mexico sharply increased violence on both sides of the border.
“We have this irony. The Obama administration, which is asking for more in the way of gun regulations — in terms of increased background checks for private sales and at gun shows — is actually prosecuting less of the gun laws already on the books,” said Robert Cottrol, a gun control historian at George Washington University. “For a lot of people, there’s more ideological cache harassing Bubba at the gun show than getting a handle on gun crime.”
The data contrast with Mr. Obama’s proclamations after the deadly shooting sprees at a Newtown, Conn., elementary school and an Aurora, Colo., movie theater that he would take every step possible to stem firearms violence.
“We should get tougher on people who buy guns with the express purpose of turning around and selling them to criminals. And we should severely punish anybody who helps them do this,” the president declared in the immediate aftermath of the Newtown tragedy.
Though the ATF has been the primary agency to combat illegal gun trafficking, the data directly from the 94 federal judicial district offices across the country show that the number of prosecutions of cases from ATF has gone down since Mr. Obama made his promise in January 2013. ATF-related prosecutions fell from 5,935 in 2012 to 5,082 in 2013, and are on track to finish around 4,500 this year, the data show.
The number of cases developed by the ATF also is plummeting. The agency became the focus of widespread criticism in 2011 when it admitted that agents knowingly allowed hundreds of semi-automatic weapons to slip across the border and into the hands of drug gangs in Mexico in a bungled investigation known as Operation Fast and Furious.
Cases recommended for prosecution by the ATF have declined from a high of 17,877 in 2004 under Mr. Bush to 12,066 last year, according to the data compiled by Syracuse University and reviewed by The Times.
Federal prosecutors, current and former ATF agents and gun law researchers told The Times that the downward trend in ATF-related prosecutions primarily reflects a Justice Department shift 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,” said Robert Sanders, a former ATF assistant director. “The agency’s 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.”
Current ATF agents, who spoke to The Times only on the condition of anonymity because of fears of retaliation, said the Justice Department has become risk-averse under Mr. Obama, especially after the Fast and Furious scandal.
“The current climate within ATF is: ‘Let’s take a step back and not go after too many hard-hitting violent crime cases that use informants or undercover agents,” one ATF agent said. “We can’t just go it alone anymore, or even lead a case. We need buy-in from everybody: local law enforcement, other agencies. Then, and only then, are we able to sell it internally and will the U.S. attorney come onboard.”