Gunning for the firearms agency

The American people should be dismayed at a move reportedly underway in Washington to abolish the agency directly charged with administering the nation's federal gun-control laws -- the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. If the effort is successful, there will be no little amount of glee at the National Rifle Association, which has been waging a relentless campaign, including use of a questionable television film, to vilify and discredit the bureau.

Surely the American people, who have repeatedly indicated their desire to control illicit firearms in the US and help reduce the nation's intolerable crime problem, will not approve such a shortsighted step -- provided they are alerted to what is happening.

A minuscule agency by government standards, with a staff of around 3,500 people, most of them agents, the ATF was set up as a separate bureau of the Treasury back in 1972. Before that it had been a division of the Internal Revenue Service. Years back ATF agents went after "moonshiners."

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The agency's budget for fiscal 1982 has already been cut as part of the federal retrenchment effort. But Mr. Reagan stopped short of totally scuttling the bureau, in part apparently because of the intervention of Treasury Secretary Donald Reagan. Now, so the rumors have it, the administration will call for dismantling ATF in the next round of cuts.

Remember the assassination attempt on President Reagan? Well, it was the ATF that ran the gun check on the weapon used in that incident, tracing it back to a pawn shop in something like 16 minutes. During the 18-month period ending this past March 31, according to the head of the bureau, the ATF sought prosecution in some 2,017 cases, of which 499 involved drug traffickers, 257 organized crime members, 192 motorcycle gang members, and 74 persons linked to extremist groups -- apprehended primarily for firearms violations. Also, out of all prosecutions recommended last year, 67 percent involved persons with prior criminal records. What is most needed, in the eyes of many gun control advocates, is to boldly strengthen the enforcement it is placed. But why fragment it? The answer, legitimate budget considerations aside, would seem to be found in the opposition of the NRA. An NRA film currently being shown on television stations around the nation depicts the agency as made up of "jack-booted fascists."

The NRA is naturally concerned about abuses against individuals suspected of gun crimes by ATF agents. But the bureau has already taken steps to prevent the types of occurrences mentioned in the film.

If the bureau is disbanded, it is assumed that its firearms and explosives role wouild go either to the Secret Service or the Department of Justice. Regulatory and tax-collecting functions would go to the IRS and the Customs Service.

But such a total dismemberment seems dubious. At this particular time law enforcement agencies should be strengthened, not dismantled.

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