(USA Today) WASHINGTON — The National Rifle Associationsays proposals such as universal background checks for gun buyers won't work and the nation must enforce the laws it has. But lobbying records and interviews show the organization has worked steadily to weaken existing gun laws and the federal agency charged with enforcing them.
"I think the majority of the American public sees through this and want the current laws enforced," NRA Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre said on Fox News Sunday of the current effort to implement more restrictions. "They don't want more laws imposed on what is only going to be the law-abiding."
A review of congressional legislative records, federal lobbying disclosure forms, as well as interviews with former ATF agents, shows how the NRA has repeatedly supported legislation to weaken several of the nation's gun laws and opposed any attempt to boost the ability of the Bureau of the Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) to enforce current laws, including:
- The Firearms Owners' Protection Act of 1986. This law mandated that the ATF could only inspect firearms dealers once a year. It reduced record-keeping penalties from felonies to misdemeanors, prohibited the ATF from computerizing purchase records for firearms and required the government to prove that a gun dealer was "willful" if they sold a firearm to a prohibited person.
- The Tiahrt amendments. Beginning in 2003, the amendments by then-representative Todd Tiahrt, R-Kan., to the Justice Department's appropriation bill included requirements such as the same-day destruction of FBI background check documents and limits on the sharing of data from traces.
- Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives Reform and Firearms Modernization Act. Most recently introduced in 2011, the bill proposed changing several regulations, including redefining the burden of proof for agents investigating firearms dealers accused of selling to prohibited individuals and capping fines for other violations.
The NRA didn't do anything to weaken the ATF, which is responsible for its inability to enforce the laws, NRA spokesman Andrew Arulanandam said.
"The thing that weakens the ATF is when they engage in deadly and criminal enterprises such as Fast and Furious," he said.
Operation Fast and Furious was a 2010 ATF operation in Arizona. Two guns linked to the botched investigation were found at the scene where a U.S. Border Patrol agent was shot and killed. The gun used to kill the agent has not been identified..
The ATF also has opposed the public sharing of data from traces, Arulanandam said, just as the NRA does.
Several former ATF agents say the 1986 Firearms Owners' Protection Act has hampered the agency's ability to enforce gun laws, because it limits their resources.
"For all practical purposes, (the act) made it not impossible but very, very difficult to police both licensed and unlicensed dealers both from a regulatory point of view and a criminal prosecution point of view," said William Vizzard, a professor of criminal justice at California State University-Sacramento and a former ATF agent.
One provision in the law Vizzard cited as particularly vexing to the ATF was that false record keeping for dealers was reduced to a misdemeanor, meaning if an ATF agent audited a gun dealer missing 1,200 guns, the dealer could not be charged with a federal offense.
"You just don't get many U.S. attorneys filing misdemeanors in federal court," he said.
Joseph Vince, a retired ATF agent, also mentioned the 1986 act, but added the agency was woefully underfunded because of NRA pressure in Congress.
"What they do, they will make it so that any gun-control measures that are passed are going to be failures," Vince said. "They set it up that way because if there's no resources granted, then how is it going to work? You look at ATF, they haven't had any more special agents than they did in 1976."
ATF records show the agency had 1,622 agents and 826 industry investigators in 1973 compared with 2,574 agents and 833 investigators in 2012.
Meanwhile the number of firearms owned in the United States has only grown.
In 1994, 44 million people in the United States owned 192 million firearms, according to a November 2012 Congressional Research Service report. By 2009, the estimated number of guns available to Americans had risen to 310 million.
Another issue frequently mentioned by gun-control advocates is the lack of continuity at the top of the ATF.
The agency has not had a permanent director since 2006, the same year the Congress passed a bill to require the head of the ATF to be confirmed by the Senate like their counterparts in the FBI – a bill supported by the NRA.
Over the years some candidates have been blocked by Republican senators or opposed by the NRA and other gun advocacy groups or simply languished in committee.
President Obama recently nominated B. Todd Jones, the ATF's current acting director, to fill the leadership void permanently. While the NRA has yet to weigh in on his nomination, key senators, such as Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, have already called for a thorough investigation of his record.
Ronald Carter, who served as acting director in 2009, said the blame for the ATF's troubles ultimately lies with Congress and said it was time for the bureau to have a permanent head.
"ATF is not exactly loved," Carter said. "They passed the Brady Bill, but they never gave it any teeth. There are no penalties."
"You can't enforce the law, if you can't do anything," he said. "You are stuck out there, and it's a tough situation."
Recent problems with ATF operations have hurt the agency's reputation.
Chris Cox, the NRA's chief lobbyist, wrote in a 2011 column in The Washington Postthat the Fast and Furious controversy called for a further rollback of ATF's powers.
"Most reasonable people would process these facts and alarming lack of competence and conclude that the ATF needs less power and that the NRA should be commended for its vigilant pursuit of the truth surrounding the ATF's gun-running operation," Cox wrote.
Despite the adversarial relationship between the ATF and the NRA, Carter and other acting directors described their relationship with the gun rights advocacy group as cordial.
"The limited interactions we did have, I thought were very productive," said Michael Sullivan, who served as acting director of the ATF from 2006 to 2009.
"The (firearm) industry wants to get it right," Sullivan said. "We did have a few opportunities when we met with the NRA to talk about things that they thought were potentially problematic or areas where they were questioning some of the positions that the ATF was taking."