Syracuse, N.Y. May 19 Referrals for the prosecution of gun crimes by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives have almost tripled in recent years, continuing an upward trend that began in 1997 when ATF enforcement actions hit their lowest point in the last 15 years.
And on the basis of very timely data obtained from the Justice Department by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) under the Freedom of Information Act, the soaring ATF enforcement effort recorded every year since the agency's FY 1997 low has continued during the first five months of FY 2003.
Contributing to the substantial surge in ATF referrals were the separate decisions of the Clinton and Bush administrations and Congress to hire more enforcement personnel: 2,346 criminal investigators in FY 2002 compared with 1,775 in FY 1997.
Other findings include:
Perhaps because of the ATF's intense focus on gun-carrying felons, the agency's involvement in terrorism matters has been comparatively modest. This is true despite its special responsibility in bomb investigations that in fact resulted in fewer actions to enforce the explosive laws in FY 2002 than a decade ago.
Here is the overview. According to the data, in the year before 9/11 - when the government as a whole brought relatively few terrorism and internal security cases - the ATF ranked second only to the FBI in the prosecution of these kinds of matters. In FY 2002, however, the year after the 9/11 attacks, ATF fell to eighth place among the agencies, well behind the FBI and several entirely new players like the Social Security Administration, the Department of Transportation and the Postal Service. While ATF terrorism/internal security cases did increase in the year after 9/11, the ten-fold surge of such matters by the entire government dwarfed the ATF effort.
An examination of the proportion of ATF referrals for prosecution that Assistant U.S. attorneys across the country decide are worthy of actual prosecution in court raises a second question. Five years ago, when compared to the other major investigative agencies, the ATF had an above average record. Now, it has slipped below the average.
The comparatively long sentences mandated in the nation's gun laws for defendants convicted on weapons charges have for many years meant that the ATF has ranked near the top of all federal agencies in terms of median and average prison terms that result from its investigations. While this is still true, the median or typical ATF sentence in recent years is now lower than it was in the mid-1990s. Since the Justice Department began collecting such information, the agency's highest median sentence - half got more, half got less - was 57 months. This was recorded in FY 1996. For FY 2000, 2001 and 2002, the median sentence for each year was 41 months.
It is widely assumed by crime experts that the use of illegal guns is a core problem of the nation's big cities. But current data show that the ATF continues to focus a good part of its enforcement efforts in the less populous and more rural districts rather than in the major cities. Measured in per capita terms - the number of referrals in each federal district in relation to its population -among the areas with below average ATF presence were California Central (Los Angeles), Illinois North (Chicago), California North (San Francisco), Massachusetts (Boston), Georgia North (Atlanta), the District of Columbia, NewYork South (Manhattan), and Michigan East (Detroit).
[For additional ATF information - about the agency's enforcement actions in individual federal districts and the U.S. as whole - go to http://trac.syr.edu/media.]
(TRAC, associated with Syracuse University, is
a non-partisan organization established in 1989 to provide the American
people with comprehensive information about the operations of the
federal government. Its operations have been supported by the university
and a number of philanthropic organizations including the Knight
Foundation, the Rockefeller Family Fund, the Open Society Institute,
the Beldon Fund, and the New York Times Company Foundation. For
detailed information about where the latest data are now available
go to http://trac.syr.edu/media.)
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