ATF at Work
Recent Trends in ATF Enforcement

During the last ten years, the gun enforcement activities of what is now known as the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) have been on a roller coaster -- first sharply down, then sharply up.

The agency's referrals for prosecution began to decline in FY 1993, the first year of the Clinton Administration. But then, beginning in FY 1997, ATF enforcement efforts began to surge. This sharply upward trend has continued during the Bush Administration with almost three times such matters in FY 2002 as there were in FY 1997.

The reasons for the trends -- both up and down -- are not fully understood but appear to be partly related to ATF staffing. During the years of decline, the number of ATF criminal investigators slumped. And since 1997, the joint decisions of the Clinton Administration, the Bush Administration and Congress led to the hiring of more enforcement personnel. In both cases, however, the changes in the enforcement counts were considerably more dramatic than the changes in the staffing numbers.

One factor that may have contributed to the decline in ATF enforcement in the years immediately after 1993 is the state of agency morale which possibly was negatively influenced by the wave of public and official criticism that swept over it in the wake of the raid on the Branch Davidian complex in Waco, Texas.

While the jump in ATF referrals for gun prosecutions is impressive, the Justice Department data indicate other trends that are less so. The median sentence -- half got more and half got less -- imposed on all those convicted as a result of an ATF investigation has inched downward -- 57 months in 1996, 48 months in 1997, 46 months in 1998 and 1999, and 41 months in 2000, 2001 and 2002.

The data showed a similar although slightly different pattern for ATF convictions classified as weapons related -- 51 months in 1996, 46 months in 1997, 41 months in 1998, 44 months in 1999 and 40 months in 2000, 2001 and 2002.

According to the recording procedures of the Administrative Office for United States Attorneys, each incoming case is classified according to the particular kind of crime that is involved -- weapons, narcotics and drugs, government regulatory, white collar crime, etc. Looked at over the years, this information shows that almost all of the increase in ATF referrals has involved weapons cases. Cases in other areas have either declined or held steady. In FY 1995, for example, ATF drug referrals peaked at 1,871 matters. Although the downward trend has not been entirely consistent, in FY 2002 there were 1,202 such cases.

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