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Obama administration officials defend their record of gun law enforcement. An ATF official referred The Times to a recent Government Accountability Office report that stated: “ATF is focusing more on the most violent criminal threats and on using criminal intelligence data to better target violent crime than it did in fiscal year 2003.”

The agency also cited staffing shortages brought on by sequestration. According to internal statistics, though, the agency has as many employees now as it did in 2004, when the surge in cases began.

Justice officials said they prefer to use internal gun statistics rather than the Syracuse University analysis, even though the data were provided by the office of U.S. attorneys.

But even Justice Department statistics show a marked decline in prosecutions originating from ATF cases — about 28 percent since 2004. Even when smaller gun cases against drug dealers are added, the Obama administration’s figures show a 20 percent decline in Justice Department prosecutions as referred by the ATF since 2008.

David Burnham, a co-director and co-founder of Syracuse’s clearinghouse, said whatever statistics administrations prefer, data from the executive office of U.S. attorneys historically have provided the fairest measures of performance.

“Accurate, complete information about the performance of the government is an essential part of democratic government,” Mr. Burnham said. “Unfortunately, the record shows that in case after case the official claims and press release and congressional testimony of many agencies — whether from the IRS, the FBI, the [Drug Enforcement Administration] or the ATF — often fail to provide such information. And in almost all administrations, Republican or Democratic, the official records that have been presented don’t help the public understand whether the agencies are achieving their stated goals.”

Shift to white-collar crime

Legal analysts say U.S. prosecutors have simply shifted their attention from gun crimes — which were priorities under the Clinton and Bush administrations — to more complicated federal issues such as white-collar crime, immigration, and corporate and government fraud under Mr. Obama. In many cases, federal prosecutors now leave gun crimes to local authorities, where states have the same prosecutorial rights.

“In a lot of jurisdictions, U.S. attorney offices don’t want very much to do with these [gun] cases,” said David Kennedy, director of the Center for Crime Prevention and Control at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City. “In the eyes of a lot of federal prosecutors, they’re mundane and declasse. They would much prefer to work other kinds of cases — non-street-crime kinds of issues that are longer-term and more complicated, involved cases. They’re more than happy to go after a mafia organization rather than one person for carrying an illegal pistol.”

U.S. attorney’s offices also are influenced on case selection by their boss, currently Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., who has taken a different approach than his Republican predecessors.

In 2001, Mr. Bush established Project Safe Neighborhoods within the Department of Justice. The program provided funding to help local law enforcement, U.S. attorneys and ATF agents crack down on street crime and prosecute gun offenders. In 2004, they recorded the highest level of federal gun prosecutions in 20 years.

Since Mr. Obama took office, violent crime rates have abated, which may have led the administration to redirect resources to problems such as white-collar crime. Some of the biggest headlines out of Mr. Holder’s department have been a $7 billion settlement with Citigroup Inc. over its handling of mortgage-backed securities and a $13 billion settlement with JPMorgan Chase & Co. — the biggest U.S. bank. Other high-profile cases have included hedge fund SAC Capital Advisors over insider trading and the indictments of Chinese hackers, which gleaned intellectual property from U.S.-based companies.

“You have to think of U.S. attorney’s offices as being the hub and all the other various agencies are the spokes,” said Bob Driscoll, a deputy assistant attorney general for civil rights during the Bush administration. “Everyone is pitching cases to them, saying, ‘Take my case.’ They’re sorting through them, and they’re not necessarily anti-gun prosecution.

“Priorities show up in these statistics because everyone wants to please their boss. You’re going to take the cases that the president and the attorney general emphasize.”

Mr. Holder historically has gone against aggressive prosecutions of gun cases at the federal level.

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