ATF Key Findings
Graphical Highlights

Referrals for federal prosecution by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms have sharply declined during the Clinton Administration, according to Justice Department data. From a peak in fiscal year 1992, ATF matters sent to federal prosecutors declined by 44%, dropping from 9,885 1992 to 5,510 in 1998. (See graph and table.)

While ATF weapons prosecutions also were well below their 1992 peak, there has been a recent upturn in this category of cases, a 25% increase from 1997 to 1998. (See graph and table.)

One result of the decline in ATF prosecutions involving weapons is that the agency was listed as the lead investigator for a smaller proportion of such cases than in the past. In 1992, ATF recommended 88% of firearms prosecutions for illegal procedures and other agencies handled the remaining 12%. By 1998 the share handled by other agencies had doubled to 24%. (See graph.)

One factor contributing to the drop in ATF enforcement has been cutbacks in its staff. According to the Office of Personnel Management, the number of ATF criminal investigators dropped by 14% in the last seven years, 2,072 in 1992 to 1,779 in 1998. (See graph.) For all kinds of full-time ATF employees there was 8% decline. (See table.) But because the pace of these declines has been much less than the decline in enforcement (see table), other unknown forces or policy changes are apparently at work.

ATF administrators have told reporters that the declines in their enforcement actions are related to improved targeting. More focused prosecutions, however, can reasonably be expected to result in longer prison sentences. This has not been the case. During the last seven years, the peak ATF sentence -- a median of 57 months -- came in 1996. In 1997, the median -- half got more and half got less -- dropped to 48 months. In 1998, it went to 46 months. (See table.)

There has been some speculation that the ATF declines might be related to the broad drop in the nation’s rate of reported crime, although there is little reliable evidence of declines in major weapons trafficking activity where the feds have the lead enforcement role. But the pattern of ATF declines doesn’t mirror crime trends (see table), nor explain why ATF’s level of activity has fallen relative to weapons enforcement by other federal agencies (see table).

Despite the recent declines in sentence length, ATF prison sentences were among the longest achieved by the major agencies. The 1998 ATF median sentence of 46 months, for example, compared with 57 months for the DEA, 25 months for the FBI, 21 months for Customs Service, 12 months for the Immigration and Naturalization Service and 5 months for the Internal Revenue Service. The median sentence for all federal agencies was 18 months. Under sentencing guidelines, weapons offenses tend to receive higher sentences than many white collar and regulatory offenses handled by other agencies. (See graph.)

In regards to its criminal enforcement activities, a bit more than three quarters of all 1998 ATF referrals involved firearms, machine guns and explosives. In fact, one statute focusing on illegal firearms procedures -- 18 U.S.C. 922 -- was the lead charge in 61.5% of ATF’s referrals. (See graph and table.)

As in many areas of federal enforcement, the data point to wide regional variations in how the ATF enforces the law in different parts of the nation. In relation to population, for example, there were at least six times more ATF referrals for prosecution in a number of more rural 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.)

Median sentences also were wildly divergent. In three districts -- Illinois Central (Springfield), North Carolina East (Raleigh) and North Carolina Middle (Greensboro) -- the median 1998 ATF sentences were over 100 months. By contrast, the median sentences -- half were more and half were less -- In Pennsylvania East (Philadelphia), New York South (Manhattan) and Arizona (Phoenix) were all 36 months or less. (See table.)
Report Date: August 1999
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