The shootings in Tucson have focused attention on the nation's gun laws. But for years, the agency charged with enforcing those laws — the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives — has been languishing.
ATF, as it's commonly known, has been without a permanent leader since the middle of the Bush administration. And its budget has lagged behind that of other law enforcement agencies.
While the FBI, DEA and other government law enforcement agencies have grown, ATF has been stagnant.
"In 1972, there was 2,500 agents. Thirty-nine years later, there's 2,500 agents — no growth at all in 39 years," says James Cavanaugh, a former special agent in charge for the ATF, who recently retired after 33 years with the agency.
The ATF has been a political target for opponents of gun regulations for years. In Congress, pro-gun lawmakers have kept its budget virtually flat.
And there's the leadership question: The ATF has not had a permanent director since 2006. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, co-chairman of Mayors Against Illegal Guns, says that has to change.
"We simply can't afford to have the ATF at less than full strength when so many gun murders are occurring every single day in all 50 states," he said.
President Bush's nominee to head the bureau was blocked by three Republican senators.
An Uphill Climb For Obama's Nomination
President Obama didn't nominate a director until last November. His choice was Andrew Traver, a career ATF agent who now is in charge of the Bureau's Chicago office.
Early indications are its going to be an uphill climb for Traver.
The nation's biggest gun lobby, the National Rifle Association, calls Traver "deeply aligned with gun control advocates and anti-gun activities." NPR asked the NRA for an interview, but it didn't respond to repeated requests.
But speaking on an NRA-sponsored radio program, the group's executive director, Chris Cox, made clear his opposition to Traver.
"He's bad news when it comes to the Second Amendment," Cox said. "But again, when you're looking at a president who put up Sonia Sotomayor or Elena Kagan and surrounded himself with this other gaggle of anti-gun activists — and that's what this guy's been, an activist — it's really just par for the course."
The NRA's objections to Traver seem to be based at least in part on his appearance in a news story on Chicago's NBC affiliate about gang violence.
In the clip, Traver was shown dramatically firing an automatic weapon.
"They see these things in movies; they see them on TV, video games, 'Oh let's get one of those,' " Traver said on the clip. "It gives people a lot of street cred — pull the trigger, you can mow people down."
The NRA says the story was misleading because automatic weapons are not commonly found on gang members.
Waiting On The Senate
The Senate has yet to hold a hearing on Traver. A Judiciary Committee aide says the panel is waiting for the administration to submit the necessary paperwork.
Cavanaugh says the lack of a Senate-confirmed director with the backing of the president is disconcerting.
"The agency goes on because law enforcement people are 'can do' people and they're mission people, but nevertheless there's not an agency in government that has to face that kind of problem," he says. "Can you imagine a big city police force not having a chief for 4 1/2 years?"
And while that might suit the gun lobby, gun control advocates hope the shootings in Tucson will spur the administration to push for Traver's confirmation.