The gun lobby, led by the National Rifle Association, has for years systematically blocked plans to modernize the agency’s paper-based weapons-tracing system with a searchable database. As a result, records of gun sales going back decades are stored in boxes stacked seven high, waiting to be processed, against every wall.
Mr. Biden has ordered a ban on the homemade-firearm kits known as “ghost guns,” a prohibition the A.T.F. will have to enforce. To help set gun policy, he has charged the A.T.F. with undertaking the first comprehensive federal survey of weapons-trafficking patterns since 2000. And to lead the bureau into the future, Mr. Biden has nominated a fiery former A.T.F. agent and gun-control activist, David Chipman.
First, though, the bureau will have to overcome its past. In the 48 years since its mission shifted primarily to firearms enforcement, it has been weakened by relentless assaults from the N.R.A. that have, in the view of many, made the A.T.F. appear to be an agency engineered to fail.
At the N.R.A.’s instigation, Congress has limited the bureau’s budget. It has imposed crippling restrictions on the collection and use of gun-ownership data, including a ban on requiring basic inventories of weapons from gun dealers. It has limited unannounced inspections of gun dealers. Fifteen years ago, the N.R.A. successfully lobbied to make the director’s appointment subject to Senate confirmation — and has subsequently helped block all but one nominee from taking office.
The A.T.F. has also been hindered from within. The bureau’s culture, several people said, prioritizes high-visibility operations, like responding to episodes of violence at the racial-justice protests across the country last summer, over its more mundane core mission of inspecting and licensing gun dealers. That mission took a major step back in 2020 during the coronavirus pandemic, when annual inspections nose-dived by more than 50 percent even as gun sales surged to record levels.
To say the A.T.F. is outgunned is an understatement. Staffing levels have remained essentially flat for two decades, with the number of inspectors who are responsible for overseeing gun dealers actually decreasing by about 20 percent since 2001. The number of firearms sold over the same period has skyrocketed: over 23 million guns in 2020, shattering the previous record of 15.7 million in 2016.