Crime, Gun Control, and the BATF: The Political Economy of Law Enforcement

By Couch, Jim F.; Shughart, William F., II | Fordham Urban Law Journal, January 2003 | Go to article overview
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Crime, Gun Control, and the BATF: The Political Economy of Law Enforcement

Couch, Jim F., Shughart, William F., II, Fordham Urban Law Journal


The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms ("BATF"), an agency of the United States Treasury Department, has wide-ranging law enforcement responsibilities, which include the investigation of crimes involving guns, explosives, and illicit drugs. (1) Its execution of these duties has been the subject of considerable controversy. (2) The Bureau's participation in incidents at Ruby Ridge, Idaho, and Waco, Texas, resulting in over one hundred deaths (including that of one federal agent), triggered serious questioning of the competence of the BATF's leadership, (3) as well as its methodology for establishing law enforcement priorities. (4)

The latter issue has been a longstanding point of contention between the BATF and its critics. According to United States Representative John H. Dingell (D-MI), for example, "The goal of the agency appears to be less the prosecution of criminals and persons unlawfully engaged in the illegal use of firearms than in the manufacturing of a statistical record of persons who have committed some technical violation of the 1968 Gun Control Act." (5) A February 1982 report of the Senate Judiciary Committee similarly concluded, "approximately 75 percent of BATF gun prosecutions were aimed at ordinary citizens who had neither criminal intent nor knowledge, but were enticed by agents into unknowing technical violations." (6) Wayne LaPierre summarizes these criticisms in the following terms: "Charged with enforcing federal gun control laws, federal agents persecute and entrap citizens who have done nothing wrong and would never contemplate doing anything wrong." (7)

This Study explores whether conclusive evidence exists to prove that the BATF systematically harasses responsible gun owners. Using cross-sectional data from the fifty states and the District of Columbia for the year 1995, this Study finds, other things equal, BATF agents tend to refer more cases for criminal prosecution to United States Attorneys in states where more citizens belong to the National Rifle Association ("NRA"). (8) Evidence that violent crime rates are lower in states with large numbers of NRA members tends to prove this positive relationship between criminal referrals and NRA membership signifies harassment, rather than cost-effectiveness, in the allocation of scarce law enforcement resources. Moreover, U.S. Attorneys tend to decline to prosecute more of the cases referred to them by BATF agents in high NRA membership states. (9)

This Study also sheds light on the non-existent impact of various state gun control laws on violent crime rates, and on the crime-deterring potential of laws allowing private citizens to carry handguns concealed about their persons. Consistent with the work of Lott and Lott and Mustard, violent crime rates are significantly lower in states where, under general conditions, local police officials "shall issue" concealed-carry permits to adults, (10) except those with prior criminal records or histories of mental illness. (11) The chief contribution of this Study, though, is to add a new dimension to interest-group theories of regulation, namely that regulatory agencies like the BATF may use their discretionary law enforcement authority selectively, not only to channel benefits to special-interest groups in return for political support, (12) but also to quash dissent by harassing members of organizations that oppose the agency's mandate, or are critical of its methods.

Part I of this Study explores some of the historical background and institutional details surrounding the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms. Part II presents the data and empirical results used in and stemming out of this Essay's statistical study. Finally, this Study ends with some concluding remarks.


Because of its unique history, the mandate of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms covers a broad range of seemingly unrelated law enforcement responsibilities.

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