It’s time to fill the ATF’s leadership vacuum

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While critics of the Obama administration are focusing on the sorry details of the “Fast and Furious” scandal that has rocked the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) for months, the real problem — the elephant in the room — goes largely unnoticed, or at least unmentioned. This problem is far more serious even than ensuring that those responsible for allowing firearms to be sold to violent gangs in Mexico are held accountable.

The problem is a complete lack of individual and institutional leadership at ATF; and if this problem is not solved, it is almost guaranteed there will be future scandals like “Fast and Furious.”

The problem began five years ago, with the passage of legislation — signed into law by then-President George W. Bush —mandating for the first time that the ATF director must be confirmed by the Senate. Republican members of Congress and the firearms lobby argued publicly and forcefully for this legislation as a way to maintain some policy control and accountability over the head of this problem-plagued agency. They got their wish; but partisan bickering and lack of focus during the final biennium of the Bush presidency prevented confirmation of a director (even though the acting ATF head, former Massachusetts U.S. Attorney Michael Sullivan, was a solid and well-respected choice).

Thus has it been ever since — a series of interim or acting directors, with no light at the end of the bureaucratic tunnel. The Obama administration has — like its predecessor — moved painfully slow in filling this post; apparently not relishing a public fight over firearms policies that almost certainly would result from pushing the envelope. Only after last year’s midterm elections did the president rise from his lethargy and submit a name to the Senate. It was a name certain to raise the ire of the firearms community; and not surprisingly, it did. Andrew Tarver, former head of the ATF’s Chicago Field Division, has met with serious opposition from the GOP and the National Rifle Association because of his anti-firearms bias.

Yet, rather than working with his opponents to find a candidate on which both sides might agree, Obama has simply ignored the matter and allowed ATF to drift leaderless for nearly three years.

This — for an agency with both regulatory and law enforcement functions over the firearms industry — is a recipe for problems, if not disaster. “Fast and Furious” should have come as no surprise.

The problem is axiomatic: an agency whose head is subject to confirmation by the Senate needs a director who has been confirmed by the Senate. It is that simple. An interim or acting director will never have the moral or bureaucratic authority to gain and exert control over the agency, department or office he or she purports to head. The longer such a situation is allowed to fester, the greater the likelihood that serious problems will manifest themselves.

However, if there is some interest in leadership by all parties involved — the administration, both R’s and D’s in the Senate, and the firearms community — some good might actually come out of the current mess.

First, Congress should step up to reform and modernize the bureau’s mission by more clearly defining its parameters and limitations. The bureau must have a director who understands and will mandate that the mission for ATF regulators is not to play “gotcha” with retailers. The vast majority of firearms retailers want to avoid having one of their firearms wind up in the hands of a criminal; and they are more than willing to work with ATF to ensure that reasonable paperwork requirements are complied with to ensure proper identification of problems.

To be successful, however, the ATF director must lay down the law — those on the agency’s regulatory side are not to try and “make their bones” by using the regulatory mandates to punish law-abiding retailers and force them to comply with overly burdensome and unnecessary paperwork simply to be caught in an unintentional paperwork error.

For its part, the civilian firearms community should express a clear willingness to work with the Obama administration to agree on an ATF director who, while not personifying everything they would like in a director, satisfies basic criteria and for which support of the community could be had.

At the end of the day, if Senate Republicans and the firearms community will make such an effort, then even if rebuffed, they will be able to honestly state they have done everything possible to resolve a situation — the status quo — that is helping no one, least of all federal law enforcement or the American people.

Bob Barr represented Georgia’s Seventh District in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1995 to 2003. He provides regular commentary to Daily Caller readers.

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Former Rep. Bob Barr