were never interviewed by an ATF inspector. In 1990, the ATF inspected only 2 percent of all gun dealers. Violations are frequently uncovered in the rare inspections that do occur, suggesting widespread violation of federal laws. Even with the dramatic drop in the number of licensed dealers, the ATF still lacks the necessary resources to conduct routine checks on most dealers. And the Firearms Owners Protection Act of 1986, discussed earlier, included a provision weakening the ATF's ability to regulate gun dealers. Clearly, the ATF's inability to carry out the law encourages much suspicious gun trafficking. Similarly, the ATF has been steadily pressured to deemphasize gun control activities, and concentrate instead on the war on drugs. 69 This analysis is confirmed by a close analysis of ATF appropriations patterns from 1970 to 1995, which reveals that ATF appropriations have grown more slowly than that of other, comparable federal law-enforcement agencies (including the FBI, Drug Enforcement Agency, Secret Service, Immigration, and Customs). As for charges that the ATF has recklessly used deadly force, a comparative analysis reveals that the ATF's record is no different from other federal law enforcement agencies' records. Further, the ATF is more strictly constrained by federal law than are other federal law-enforcement agencies. In short, "the ATF is not a powerful bureaucracy," but "the weak sister of federal law enforcement agencies." 70
Like other agencies involved with social regulatory policy, the ATF has been whipsawed by its political opponents, congressional critics, and even others in the executive branch. Regardless of the course of future national gun control efforts, the ATF will continue to be subject to prevailing political winds.
I noted at the start of this chapter that the proposal advanced by the Roosevelt administration in the 1930s, national gun registration, represented a far more ambitious policy goal than the celebrated (among control advocates) victory of proponents in the early 1990s, a waiting period for handgun purchases. Attendant to these lowering policy objectives has been the achievement of some legislative successes for control supporters. Yet the fury of gun politics has hardly abated. If anything, that fury has become more intense in recent decades. How do we explain the changes in policy focus from the 1930s to the 1990s and the divergent trends of sustaining-to-escalating political intensity versus the regressing policy objectives of control supporters (leaving aside the prospect of more ambitious policy objectives expected in the future)?