ATF at Work
Regional Patterns In Enforcement

Justice Department data point to wide variations in how the ATF enforces the gun laws in different parts of the country. On their face, some of these variations seem understandable. Is it not likely that Arizona along the border with Mexico has different problems than Maine along the border with Canada? But some other variations are more puzzling.

Big cities have a reputation for having more armed felons than rural areas. And the ATF, moving out of the drug and alcohol enforcement business, is now concentrating its energies on prosecuting previously convicted felons who have been discovered with weapons.

Why then, when considered in terms of the number of referrals in relation to population, are six of the nation's "big city" districts among the least active? In FY 2002, for example, California South (San Diego), California Central (Los Angeles), Illinois North (Chicago), California North (San Francisco), Massachusetts (Boston), and the District of Columbia all fell in the bottom third of the 90 federal judicial districts in the United States in terms of this particular measure.

Are there not a fair number of armed felons in these six cities? Is it possible that these particular police departments are so proficient in the gun control business that ATF managers decided to deploy their troops in other parts of the country? Perhaps.

But the ten districts that come out on top in the listing of per capita ATF referrals raise other kinds of questions. This curious list includes Tennessee West (Memphis), Nevada (Las Vegas), Kentucky East (Lexington), Rhode Island (Providence), Louisiana Middle (Baton Rouge), Missouri West (Kansas City), Utah (Salt Lake City), Delaware (Wilmington), Oklahoma North (Tulsa) and North Dakota (Fargo).

The district-by-district data further show that the sentences resulting from ATF investigations are surprisingly varied. Because sentencing rules somewhat limit the discretion of judges, at least part of these differences must be the product of the mix of cases pursued by ATF agents in various sections of the country.

For the entire United States the median ATF sentence -- half got more, half got less -- in FY 2002 was 41 months. In ten districts, however, the median sentence was 70 months or more. These longest sentence districts were extremely varied. They were: Alaska (Anchorage), North Carolina West (Asheville), North Carolina East (Raleigh), North Carolina Middle (Greensboro), Florida North (Pensacola), Oklahoma East (Muskogee), Tennessee Middle (Nashville), Illinois North (Chicago), Florida South (Miami) and Tennessee East (Knoxville).

At the other end of the ATF sentencing scale were ten districts where the median was less than 26 months. They included New Hampshire (Concord), Washington West (Seattle), Kentucky West (Louisville), Delaware (Wilmington), Vermont (Burlington), South Dakota (Sioux Falls), Louisiana West (Shreveport), California East (Sacramento), Arkansas East (Little Rock) and California South (San Diego).

Finding the explanations for these kinds of variations could help the ATF in two ways. One involves the agency's effectiveness. Do its current policies maximize its ability to reduce America's high levels of gun violence? The second question goes to fairness. Are the tax-paying citizens living in districts where the agency for all practical purposes has left the field getting their money's worth from their government?

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