ATF at Work
Regional Patterns In Enforcement

The Justice Department data point to wide variations in how the ATF enforces federal laws in different sections of the country. Some of these variations appear to be grounded in the underlying enforcement challenges facing the agency. Arizona, for example, obviously has very different problems than Maine. But others, on their face, raise management questions that are worthy of more focused analysis.

In relation to population, there were at least six times more ATF referrals in a number of more rural federal judicial districts like Oklahoma North (Tulsa), Tennessee East (Knoxville), West Virginia South (Charleston) and North Carolina West (Ashville) than in major urban centers such as California North (San Francisco), California Central (Los Angeles), Illinois North (Chicago) and New jersey (Newark). (See table and graphic.)

Are there valid explanations for these disparities? Are the more rural districts like Ashville, N.C. and Charleston, W. Va., the centers for the nation's violence problems? Are there big time gun dealers servicing the youth gangs in Los Angeles or Chicago? Are the priorities of the ATF influenced by possibly outdated laws? Or does the LAPD do such excellent gun enforcement that the expertise of the ATF is not needed?

The data also show that the median sentence resulting from an ATF investigation varies greatly around the country. Because the sentencing guidelines limit the sentencing discretion of judges and very few federal cases are decided by a jury, the sentencing variations are mostly the result of the kinds of cases the ATF agents and assistant U.S. attorneys select for prosecution in the different districts. The 1998 median sentences resulting from an ATF investigation in Illinois Central (Springfield), North Carolina East (Raleigh) and North Carolina Middle (Greensboro) were all over 100 months. By contrast, the median sentence --half got more, half got less--in Pennsylvania East (Philadelphia), New York South (Manhattan) and Arizona (Phoenix) were all 36 months or less. (See table and graphic.)

Finding the explanations for these kinds of variations may help the agency in two ways. One involves the effectiveness of the ATF. Do its current policies maximize the ability of the agency to reduce violence? The second goes to fairness. In recent years, many American citizens have seen the ATF as an arbitrary force. Might a genuine effort by the agency to examine and reduce unnecessary disparities increase public support for its operations?

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