Is the federal agency in charge of enforcing gun laws  up to the task?

As The New York Times reports, the current scandal over a gun-trafficking investigation by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives has refocused attention on the failings of the agency.

That investigation, known as Fast and Furious, has triggered enormous controversy because of the disclosure that bureau agents let weapons slip across the Mexican border – including two guns that later turned up in Arizona, where a U.S. Border Patrol agent was killed in a shootout.

The bureau, part of the Justice Department, has been tarnished before by botched operations, including the deadly 1993 raid on the compound of the Branch Davidian cult near Waco, Tex.

It regularly clashes with the National Rifle Association, one of Washington’s strongest lobbying powers, whose leader has called the bureau a “rogue” agency.

Even the bureau’s defenders concede that it is ineffective, and they say that’s why it has resorted to operations such as Fast and Furious, which was intended to lead agents to bigger criminal targets.

These critics say the NRA is the source of the problems, maintaining that the gun lobby for years has coaxed Congress to limit the government’s gun control powers.

As the Times notes, the bureau is barred from conducting more than one unannounced inspection of a gun dealer per year and is restricted in its ability to revoke the licenses of dealers who break the law. The bureau also has been blocked from keeping a centralized computer database of gun transactions, which advocates say would make it easier to trace weapons.

Ideas about how to make improvements vary widely and range from beefing the agency’s powers to merging it into the FBI.

Meanwhile, amid the long-running debate and controversy, the agency hasn’t had a permanent director in five years, and the current acting director, Kenneth E. Melson, is at risk of losing his job over the Fast and Furious scandal.


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