The Trace's Examination of the ATF Goes Exactly as You'd Expect

AP Photo/Andrew Harnik

In the gun community, pretty much no one likes the ATF. After all, this is a law enforcement agency that seems to spend more of its time making life difficult for law-abiding gun owners than going out and catching actual criminals.


Meanwhile, as so-called gun violence increases, the agency’s focus always seems to be on gun stores, manufacturers, and lawful gun owners instead of the gun traffickers who put weapons on the black market in the first place.

But over at The Trace, their issue is that the ATF just doesn’t seem to do enough of any of that.

Let’s start with a story. More accurately, The Trace starts with a story, one familiar to most in the gun rights community: Ruby Ridge.

It recounts the events, then we get to this part:

Alain Stephens: Weaver becomes a right-wing hero. He launches a successful self-defense campaign in court, and gets sentenced to 18 months behind bars and a $10,000 fine. The Justice Department’s Ruby Ridge Task Force would later clear the US Marshals of wrongdoing, and lay the bulk of the blame on the FBI’s response. But none of this would matter because publicly another agency was going to hold the bag for the catastrophe and carry the burden for the decades to come: The ATF. You might not have heard of them, but for a certain cross-section of Americans who have, they absolutely, positively hate them.

You see, the issue was the ATF didn’t do anything wrong. It was all the FBI but the ATF got scapegoated because of what happened.


Stephens, though, ignores at least one aspect throughout the recounting of Ruby Ridge. He left out that Randy Weaver was entrapped by the ATF’s informant. That’s not just my opinion, but the opinion of a jury.

But Stephens continues:

Alain Stephens: I’mma keep it 100. As a reporter on the ATF beat for the past seven years, and because of the work I’ve done to shine some light on this agency that lives in the shadows, I’ve had some tense moments with their top brass. I’ve reported on how ATF inspectors go easy on shoddy gun dealers. I hit them on their staffing shortfalls, on their secrecy. I’ve filed so many public records requests that their public information officer knows me by name. So I was pretty shocked when Dettelbach — the head honcho — agreed to sit down and talk.

[Steve Dettelbach: I really appreciate you guys too. OK, you know, I lived up there for three years and you were my radio station.]

Alain Stephens: And he also wants to tell us what a fan he is of the ATF—

[Steve Dettelbach: I want to make sure that people understand all the fantastic enforcement work that is going on, all the fantastic regulatory work that is going on at ATF]

Alain Stephens: That’s what he wants you to know, but it’s my job to also expose the shortfalls. That’s why I’m constantly casing the joint, searching for agents, sources, retirees, and documents. As a journalist, I know that due to the politics of firearms, Dettelbach has a thousand eyes on him, and for this, I cannot take his statements at face value.


The gist of what’s happening here is that Stephens is basically taking issue with the ATF and how they do their job, but is saying it’s not really the agency’s fault. They just don’t have the staffing and resources to really do the job.

What he’s not talking about, however, is how they do what they do with what they have.

You see, the issue with the ATF is that what happened with Randy Weaver isn’t just some isolated event. We’ve seen the ATF doing all kinds of shady things over the years, and those continue today.

Just last year, the ATF showed up at one gun owner’s home to essentially spot inspect whether or not he still had a gun he’d recently purchased. It may look reasonable, but they don’t actually have the authority to do that. Absent some kind of probable cause, there’s no reason to show up at anyone’s door to ask about their guns and just buying a number in a short time frame isn’t probable cause.

A couple of weeks later, we learned about an ATF inspector taking photos of a gun dealer’s paperwork. This is paperwork the ATF can inspect but can’t lawfully record for their own purposes, at least not without evidence of an error or some kind of wrongdoing.

And revocations of FFLs hit a 16-year high in 2022, all because the ATF has started dinging clerical errors as if the dealer is selling machine guns out of the back door to Cub Scout-aged gang members.


So spare me the diatribe about how the ATF is just understaffed and lacks the resources to really do their jobs correctly or how we’re just upset that the ATF is a regulatory body and we’d really rather not be regulated.

No, Randy Weaver’s experiences are just one example of why the ATF is reviled. If they don’t want that, well, they can stop doing some incredibly shady stuff and instead focus on catching actual criminals for a change.

Then again, considering what The Trace was recently accused of, no wonder they don’t see a problem there.

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