In the eighth of nine of editorials about gun violence, the New York Times says the ATF, the federal law enforcement agency charged with enforcing gun laws, is too understaffed to mount meaningful investigations of those who try to buy guns illegally. Last year, at least 117,407 Americans who were barred by law from buying a gun nevertheless tried to purchase one from a licensed dealer. These people had been convicted of domestic violence, another violent crime or a drug offense; had been committed to a mental hospital or found to be mentally unfit; or met other criteria that would have gotten them flagged in the national database used for instant background checks. When you’re on that list, lying about it in order to buy a gun is a federal felony, punishable by up to 10 years in prison.
Yet of the thousands of denials referred to the ATF, federal prosecutors pursued charges in only 20 cases in 2015, the latest year for which figures are available. And only rarely did the agency notify victims of domestic abuse that their abusers were trying to arm themselves. Why so little action? The ATF, with just 2,600 agents to cover the entire country, has focused on terrorism at home since 9/11. Running down every lead is simply not a priority — nor, probably, is it feasible. The Justice Department could help by setting national guidelines to prosecute more of these cases.