ATF National Profile and Enforcement Trends Over Time
Graphical Highlights

Referrals for the prosecution of gun crimes by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives have almost tripled in recent years, continuing an upward trend that began in 1997 when ATF enforcement actions hit their recent all-time low.

And on the basis of very timely data obtained from the Executive Office of United States Attorney under the Freedom of Information Act, the soaring ATF enforcement effort recorded every year since the agency's FY 1997 low has continued during the first five months of FY 2003. (See graph and table.)

Contributing to the substantial surge in ATF referrals were the separate decisions of the Clinton and Bush administrations and Congress to hire more enforcement personnel: 2,346 criminal investigators in FY 2002 compared with 1,775 in FY 1997. (See graph and table.)

Another factor behind the startling growth in the ATF enforcement efforts may have been the active support of Attorney General John Ashcroft since the Bush Administration first came into office and since -- on January 24, 2003 -- the ATF was transferred from its long-term location in the Treasury Department to the Justice Department. The annual rate of increase recorded in ATF enforcement actions during the Bush years, however, is similar to that racked up in the latter years of the Clinton Administration. (See graph.)

One expression of the attorney general's interest came in a January speech to a national conference in Philadelphia on what the Justice Department calls "Project Safe Neighborhoods." Mr. Ashcroft invoked President Bush's May 2001 promise that "if you use a gun illegally, you will do time." He further said that the Department's current message to armed criminals was "unambiguous: no more slipping through the cracks."

During the national weapons conference the attorney general said that after two years in office the Bush Administration's enforcement "numbers speak for themselves." Here then are some selected points about the government's recent gun campaign drawn from Justice Department data:

A large proportion of all ATF federal prosecutions are directed at individual gun users rather than illegal gun dealers. In FY 2002, for example, the lead charge in two out of three ATF weapons was a section of the law making it a crime for a felon to possess a gun. Only a small fraction of the ATF cases appeared to have been aimed at dealers who failed to live up to various restrictions imposed by law on the nation's gun dealers. (See table and graph.)

The actual impact of the various changes in ATF enforcement actions on the nation is not completely clear. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, for example, homicides by handgun are considerably down from where they were in the early 1990's. For the nation as a whole, gun homicides were highest in the years 1991-1993. They then began a decline from their 1993 peak, continuing to fall throughout the rest of the 90's, and then leveling out in 2000. Curiously, however, looked at over time, changes in the ATF's gun enforcement actions do not seem to be reflected in changes in gun homicides. During the first few years of the historic decline in homicides, for example, ATF enforcement efforts were sharply lower. Then, in FY 1997, when ATF enforcement began to go up sharply, the rate of homicides by gun did not experience an even steeper decline, as might have been expected, but continued to go down at about the same pace as before. In FY 2000, however, as the ATF enforcement continued to climb, the homicide numbers remained steady. (See graph and table.)

Perhaps because of the ATF's intense focus on gun-carrying felons, the agency's involvement in terrorism matters was comparatively modest in the period after 9/11/01, despite its special responsibilities and expertise in conducting bomb investigations.

Although there were a relatively small number of terrorism and internal security cases for the entire government in the twelve months before the 9/11 attacks, the ATF that year was second only to the FBI when it came to referring these kinds of cases. In FY 2002, however, the year after the 9/11 attacks, ATF fell to eighth place among the agencies, well behind the FBI and several entirely new players like the Social Security Administration, the Department of Transportation and the Postal Service. While ATF terrorism/internal security cases did increase in the year after 9/11, the ten-fold surge in enforcement activities by all federal agencies dwarfed the ATF effort. (See graph and table.) Actions by the ATF to enforce explosives laws are in fact lower today than they were a decade ago. (See graph and table.)

Attorney General Ashcroft, in his January speech, claimed that "the conviction rate for federal gun crime prosecutions was nearly 90 percent in FY year 2002." For those who are actually indicted -- or formally charged -- the conviction rate with these crimes is indeed high, running 83 to 85 percent in each of the last five years. (See table.)

When calculated another way, however, the Justice Department's official numbers are less impressive. Every year, after considering all the weapons cases the ATF has recommended for prosecution, a certain number are declined by assistant U.S. Attorneys or dismissed by federal judges. When looked at though this lens -- the percent of all weapons matters disposed of where the defendant was found guilty -- the ATF conviction rate is quite different than that cited by the attorney general. In FY 1998, 54% of all referrals led to a conviction. This dropped to 42% in FY 1999, 43% in FY 2000, 42% in 2001 and 44% in 2002. (See table.)

An examination of the proportion of ATF referrals for prosecution that Assistant U.S. attorneys across the country decide are worthy of actual prosecution in court raises a second question. Five years ago, when compared to the other major investigative agencies, the ATF had an above average record. Now, it has slipped below the average. (See graph and table.)

Even when looking only at weapons prosecutions, ATF's record does not measure up quite as well as other agencies. In FY 2002, somewhat more than half of ATF weapons referrals under 18 USC 922 (56% of them) were prosecuted. By comparison, over two thirds of the weapons matters referred to the prosecutors (71%) by other federal agencies were prosecuted. (See table.)

The comparatively long sentences mandated in the nation's gun laws for defendants convicted on weapons charges have for many years meant that the ATF has ranked near the top of all federal agencies in terms of median and average prison terms that result from its investigations. While this is still true, the median or typical ATF sentence in recent years is now lower than it was in the mid-1990s. Since the Justice Department began collecting such information, the agency's highest median sentence -- half got more, half got less -- was 57 months. This was recorded in FY 1996. For FY 2000, 2001 and 2002, the median sentence for each year was 41 months. (See graph and table.)

It is widely assumed by crime experts that the use of illegal guns is a core problem of the nation's big cities. But current data show that the ATF continues to focus a good part of its enforcement efforts in the less populous and more rural districts rather than in the major cities. Measured in per capita terms -- the number of referrals in each federal district in relation to its population -- among the areas with below average ATF presence were California Central (Los Angeles), Illinois North (Chicago), California North (San Francisco), Massachusetts (Boston), Georgia North (Atlanta), the District of Columbia, New York South (Manhattan), and Michigan East (Detroit). (See graph and table, as well as additional details.)

Report Date: May 19, 2003
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