MARTINSBURG, W.Va. The ability of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives to thwart gun violence is hamstrung by legislative restrictions and by loopholes in federal gun laws, many law enforcement officials and advocates of tighter gun regulations say.
Under current laws, the bureau is prohibited from creating a federal registry of gun transactions. So while detectives on television tap a serial number into a computer and instantly identify the buyer of a firearm, the reality could not be more different.
When law enforcement officers recover a gun and serial number, workers at the bureau's National Tracing Center here begin making their way through a series of phone calls, asking first the manufacturer, then the wholesaler and finally the dealer to search their files to identify the buyer of the firearm.
About a third of the time, the process involves digging through records sent in by companies that have closed, in many cases searching by hand through cardboard boxes filled with computer printouts, hand-scrawled index cards or even water-stained sheets of paper.
In an age when most data is available with a few keystrokes, the ATF is forced to follow this manual routine because the idea of establishing a central database of gun transactions has been rejected by lawmakers in Congress who have sided with the National Rifle Association. In other countries, gun rights groups argue, governments have used gun registries to confiscate the firearms of law-abiding citizens.
Advocates for increased gun regulation, however, contend that in a country plagued by gun violence, a central registry could help keep firearms out of the hands of criminals and allow law enforcement officials to act more effectively to prevent gun crime.
As has been the case for decades, the ATF, the federal agency charged with enforcing gun laws and regulating the gun industry, is caught in the middle.
Law enforcement officials say that, in theory, the ATF could take a lead role in setting a national agenda for reducing gun crime. But it is hampered, they say, by politically driven laws.
"I think that they've really been muzzled over the last several years from doing their job effectively," said Frederick H. Bealefeld III, an ex-Baltimore police commissioner.
The bureau has been without a permanent director for six years. Filling the position has become harder since Congress, prodded by the NRA, decided that the position should require Senate confirmation.
That leadership vacuum, Bealefeld and others said, has inevitably depleted morale and kept the agency from developing a coherent agenda.
The bureau's tracing center performed 344,447 gun traces in fiscal 2012, but its staffing is no higher than it was in 2004, according to its chief, Charles Houser. Still, he added, the center manages to complete urgent traces in about an hour, and routine traces are done within several days.
The distrust between the ATF and gun rights groups is longstanding.
Alan Gottlieb, the founder of the Second Amendment Foundation, cited a 1971 case in which ATF agents raided the apartment of Ken Ballew in Silver Spring, Md., in the belief that he was stockpiling unregistered grenades. Agents found a cache of weapons, according to a lawsuit filed in the case, and Ballew was shot in the head after pointing a revolver in the agents' direction.
The 1992 siege of Ruby Ridge in Idaho and the 1993 raid on the Branch Davidian complex near Waco, Texas, are also sore points, Gottlieb said. He said the "low point" came in the bungled gun-trafficking investigation known as Operation Fast and Furious, in which ATF agents, in an effort to trace guns to a network based in Arizona, did not quickly intervene as the weapons were smuggled over the border to Mexico.
The bureau's acting director, B. Todd Jones, said he has increased oversight and has carried out changes recommended by the inspector general in a report in September.
Yet law enforcement officials and criminal justice experts who would like the ATF to have greater latitude say its effectiveness in cutting gun violence is still hampered by laws limiting the information it can obtain and constraining its day-to-day functioning.
The Firearm Owners Protection Act of 1986, for example, bars ATF agents from making more than one unannounced inspection per year of licensed gun dealers. It also reduced the falsification of records by dealers to a misdemeanor and put in place vague language defining what it meant to "engage in business" without a dealer's license.
Both provisions, said William J. Vizzard, an emeritus professor of criminal justice at California State University, Sacramento, and an ex-ATF special agent, made it harder for the bureau to go after gun sellers who broke the law.
The Tiahrt amendments named for Todd Tiahrt, a former Kansas congressman, and first attached as riders to appropriations bills in 2003 and 2004 limited the ATF's ability to share tracing information on firearms linked to crimes with local and state law enforcement agencies and with the public.
Those restrictions have been loosened in subsequent versions of the amendments. But under the most recent Tiahrt amendment, adopted in 2010, the ATF still cannot release anything but aggregate data to the public. The amendment still bars the ATF from using tracing data in some legal proceedings to suspend or revoke a dealer's license, and it requires that records of background checks of gun buyers be destroyed within 24 hours of approval.
Advocates of tighter regulation say this makes it harder to identify dealers who falsify records or buyers who make "straw" purchases of firearms for others.