It's Time For Trump To Appoint A Watchdog ATF Director Or Abolish The Agency

Once again, there’s a job opening over at the Bureau of Alcohol, Firearms, Tobacco, and Explosives, with Fraternal Order of Police president Chuck Canterbury’s nomination pulled by the Trump administration after several Republican senators expressed their concerns and reservations about Canterbury’s positions on gun control. As head of the FOP, Canterbury backed an expansion of gun laws, and once the administration received word that Canterbury’s nomination wasn’t likely to survive a vote by the Senate Judiciary Committee, there was really no other option but to yank the nomination entirely.

Who will be the next nominee? I have no idea, but I do have some ideas about the qualities that they should bring to the table, starting with the fact that the next nominee should be an outsider, not an agency insider. It’s time for an ATF director that’s far more interested in keeping a close eye potential abuses by agents than pushing for an expansion of the agency’s power, and that will be more easily accomplished by bringing in someone without any institutional ties to the agency.

The Netflix miniseries Waco recently was in the Top 10 most watched shows on the platform, despite it being two years old, and it’s worth a watch if you missed it when it was first released, like I did. The series is based on two books, one by a Branch Davidian survivor, and one by FBI hostage negotiator Gary Noesner, and it’s a little uneven in my opinion because it’s so sympathetic to Noesner’s point of view. It’s also, however, highly critical of the ATF’s role in the Waco siege, and has likely served as an introduction to millions of Americans about some of the past abuses by the agency.

More recently, the ATF’s role in Operation Fast and Furious, as well as conducting a series of flawed storefront sting operations, have demonstrated the need for an ATF director that will serve as a check on the reckless actions that we’ve seen in the past. If the Trump administration wants to keep the agency in place, they need a watchdog director that will view the agency’s power with a healthy dose of skepticism instead of full-throated enthusiasm.

Back in 2019, former ATF agent Vince Cefalu, who helped to expose Operation Fast and Furious, told the Federal News Network that he wants to see a director who will make the agency accountable for its mistakes, and one who will open the agency up to far more transparency and sunlight than what we’ve seen in the past.

“I would institute a transparent form of accountability,” he said. “It states in our policies, it states in the Office of Special Counsel laws, that any manager ever proven to have discriminated or retaliated against an employee or whistleblower will be immediately terminated. I worked for several and there were formal findings of discrimination or retaliation. Know what they did? Transfer them to another field division. They’re supposed to post a notice, attesting to the finding of retaliation so all the employees can see. When mine was going on, they posted the finding of retaliation behind the refrigerator door in the break room. They do what they want, and as you know, people keep doing what they want until they face consequences when they screw up.”

Just as importantly, the next nominee to be the director of the ATF needs to be someone that truly supports and defends the right to keep and bear arms. According to the ATF’s mission statement, its job when it comes to firearms is to “protect communities from violent criminals, criminal organizations, [and] the illegal use and trafficking of firearms”. That’s it. The role of the ATF is not to push to expand gun control laws, or to shut down gun stores over minor paperwork errors. The ATF has earned a reputation over the years as an agency that is hostile to the Second Amendment rights of Americans, and a director that’s been an outspoken proponent of the right to keep and bear arms would do wonders to help rehabilitate the agency in the eyes of gun owners, so long as their words were backed up by actions. Start enforcing the laws on the books, instead of twisting the wordings of regulations to achieve the desired result.

If that’s too tall an order to be filled, there is another option for President Trump. He could choose to abolish the agency entirely and fold its responsibilities into an existing federal law enforcement agency. For more than a decade the ATF has largely been headed by acting directors, not those who’ve been confirmed by the Senate. Obama didn’t get around to appointing B. Todd Jones director until his second term in office, and didn’t bother to replace him when he resigned in 2015. Canterbury would have been Trump’s first confirmed ATF director, but since he can’t get confirmed that’s a non-starter. If there’s not an outsider who supports the Second Amendment that could serve as a watchdog over the agency, perhaps the best option would be to get rid of the agency and hand over its responsibilities to agencies that operate with more oversight and attention than the ATF has in the past.