President Joe Biden’s new anti-gun initiative announced Wednesday focused mostly on empowering states and localities to step up their enforcement efforts.
But for states like New York and counties like Nassau and Suffolk, it’s the failures of federal law enforcement and lax laws in other states that make stopping the violence so hard.
As many as 90% of the guns used in crimes in New York come from out of state, often via the “iron pipeline” from Georgia, Florida and the Carolinas. Those states are lax on guns by design, so measures to protect New Yorkers must start at the federal level. The federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives does not have the resources to do the job, also by design.
If Biden wants to slow a wave of violence he expects to worsen this summer, he must start on the federal level.
The laws that govern guns, experts say, are riddled with loopholes. Gun-industry lobbyists and gun-rights activists’ first line of defense against new laws is to demand we enforce existing ones. Yet, they are often the first ones who make it impossible to do so, by fighting reporting requirements, data collection and reasonable enforcement measures.
The ATF is hobbled. With about 2,500 agents, it has as many officers investigating gun crimes as the Nassau or Suffolk police departments have officers. The 760 investigators who inspect gun dealers are badly understaffed and are no longer even allowed to carry badges, a 2003 change that delegitimizes their efforts.
Congress has slashed the ATF budget, restricted the collection of gun data and limited inspections of gun dealers. The ATF estimates 1.2% of gun dealers sell 57% of guns used in crimes, but it is illegal to conduct surprise inspections or inspect them more than annually. Only 58% of all gun dealers have faced a federal inspection in the past five years, and the ATF rarely tracks the actions of high-risk dealers.
Lax states keep poor records, so traces of guns and criminals don’t work, and Washington refuses to make states comply with reporting laws. And federal gun prosecutions are rare, not least because dealers cannot be convicted of a crime unless they “willfully” sold a weapon intended to be used in a crime.
But Biden, who proposes as much as $6 trillion in new spending, asked for only a 5% increase for the ATF budget this year. The ATF is funded to do 375,000 background checks this year; it expects 548,000.
Reaction to Biden’s speech largely focused on the balance between pro-policing moves like the new strike forces for New York and four other cities, and progressive wish-list items like summer enrichment and jobs programs for youth.
But what needs to be addressed most is the fact that Washington politicians are not doing their job.
And New York can’t do it for them.