Inspections of Firearms Dealers by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives
Report Number I-2004-005
On June 4, 2004, the Office of the Inspector General (OIG) sent copies of a draft of this report to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) with a request for written comments. The ATF responded to us in a memorandum dated June 29, 2004.
The ATF fully concurred with seven of our nine recommendations. The ATF did not concur with our recommendation on updating its inspection tracking system to more accurately segregate and report on all Inspector time spent on inspections. Instead, the ATF offered an alternative solution for updating N-SPECT, explaining that an update to the overall system, N-FOCIS, would accomplish what we recommended. The ATF also conditionally concurred with the recommendation on developing a model to more accurately identify potential firearms trafficking, although it suggested that implementing the recommendation would be difficult. The ATF also provided general comments on the findings contained in the draft report. Our analysis of the ATF's comments on the recommendations and findings in the draft report follows.
THE ATF'S RESPONSE TO RECOMMENDATIONS
Recommendation 1: Develop a standard, streamlined inspection process that includes in-person inspections of all Federal Firearms Licensee (FFL) applicants; more efficient inventory and records reviews; automated inspection reporting; and consistent examination of indicators of firearms trafficking.
Status: Resolved - Open
Summary of the ATF's Response: The ATF concurred with our recommendation and stated that it is taking a series of steps to implement it, including:
In response to our recommendation that the ATF automate its inspection procedures, the ATF stated that Inspectors have laptop computers at their disposal, but that many FFLs object to the use of these computers during inspections. The ATF stated that these FFLs are concerned that the laptop computers might be used to create a registry of firearms and firearms owners, something the ATF is prohibited by law from doing.
The OIG's Analysis: The ATF's proposed actions are responsive to the recommendation. By October 31, 2004, please provide copies of or status reports on the following:
The ATF's comment on the use of laptops is not responsive to the recommendation to automate inspection reporting. We are not persuaded that FFLs should be allowed to determine how the ATF conducts its inspections. The fear ascribed to some FFLs is groundless. Creating an effective national firearms registry would require information on all gun sales by all FFLs - a logistical impossibility for the ATF. The ATF's current practice of taking handwritten notes while onsite at an FFL and later transcribing the information into a computer is no more or less likely to facilitate the hypothetical national firearms registry than is entering inspection information directly into a computer while onsite. Rather, we believe that educating FFLs on the implausibility of their concern, as well as the potential benefits of quicker inspections and more accurate inspection records for the FFL, could help overcome such objections. Therefore, we request that the ATF reconsider this response and also identify steps to improve the automation of the inspection process.
Recommendation 2: Conduct a pilot project to test the streamlined inspection procedures and establish appropriate time standards for conducting these inspections.
Status: Resolved - Open
Summary of the ATF's Response: The ATF concurred with this recommendation and stated that it was developing streamlined, standardized inspection procedures, which it planned to test in several divisions in a pilot project during Fiscal Year 2005.
The OIG's Analysis: The ATF's proposed action is responsive to the recommendation. By October 31, 2004, please provide us with the streamlined inspection procedures that will be used in the pilot project, as well as the planned start and completion dates, and locations, for the pilot project.
Recommendation 3: Revise the staffing requirement report using the time standards to reflect the number of Inspectors needed to conduct compliance inspections on a triennial basis or on an alternative schedule based on the FFL's compliance history.
Status: Resolved - Open
Summary of the ATF's Response: The ATF concurred with our recommendation and stated that it created a working group to develop a workload model. A completion date for the effort has not yet been established, but a status report from the working group was due by late June 2004 to the Assistant Director (Field Operations). Further, in its response to Recommendation 4, the ATF stated that it has contracted with an academic researcher to develop recommendations to improve performance measures to help the ATF maximize its existing resources.
The OIG's Analysis: The ATF's proposed action is responsive to the recommendation. By October 31, 2004, please provide us with copies of the status reports submitted by the working group, the schedule for the completion of the workload model, any revised staffing requirement reports, and copies of the recommendations of the academic researcher for improving the utilization of existing resources.
Recommendation 4: Develop alternatives for better aligning Inspector resources with the distribution of FFLs, such as by redrawing Field Division boundaries, realigning personnel, or other methods.
Status: Resolved - Open
Summary of the ATF's Response: The ATF responded that the rationale for how Inspectors were allocated to its Field Divisions was based on its former alcohol and tobacco oversight responsibilities (which are now assigned to the Department of the Treasury), as well as its explosives inspections activities. The ATF recently began consolidating its Director of Industry Operations (DIO) positions so that they are better aligned with its FFL and explosives inspection workload. Also, using the new workload model for Inspector staffing developed in response to Recommendation 3, the ATF will evaluate the need to reassign Inspectors to better align resources with the distribution of FFLs and explosives licensees.
The OIG's Analysis: The ATF's proposed action is responsive to the recommendation. By October 31, 2004, please provide us with a schedule for completing the assessment of the alignment of Inspector resources with the FFL population and any analyses of the current and planned distribution of resources.
Recommendation 5: Update the inspection tracking system to accurately segregate and report on Inspector time spent preparing for inspections, in travel, onsite at FFLs, and conducting other administrative duties.
Status: Unresolved - Open
Summary of the ATF's Response: The ATF did not concur with the recommendation, stating that because it "does not believe it is necessary to categorize Inspector work time by function (e.g., travel time v. preparation time)" to ensure that Inspectors are operating efficiently. The ATF stated that it believes its current case management system, N-FOCIS, uses project codes to accurately account for "all administrative costs associated with ATF's mission." The ATF stated that it has upgraded its N FOCIS system [which includes the N Spect FFL inspection database] to segregate inspection activities by type (i.e., application inspections versus compliance inspections) to "provide for better categorization of inspector workloads."
The OIG Analysis: The ATF's comments and alternative actions are not responsive to the recommendation to update the tracking system to segregate and report on Inspector time. From the description of the recent upgrades to the N FOCIS system provided by the ATF, it appears that the ATF will be better able to track data on each type of inspection and how it was conducted. However, from the information provided, it appears that the ATF will still be unable to quantify Inspector time spent onsite, in travel, and accomplishing other administrative and non-inspection related activities.
However, a system that does not track all categories of Inspector time is inadequate for ensuring that activities are conducted efficiently. In our review, we found that only 41 percent of ATF Inspectors' firearms-related work time is spent directly on inspection activities (including traveling to and from the FFL's place of business). Fifty-nine percent of the Inspectors' time was spent on activities not directly related to inspections, such as training, answering telephone inquiries from FFLs, or other administrative tasks. Implementing a tracking system that can measure the time spent on all of these activities - not just data related to the specific type of inspection assignment - is essential to developing and implementing an effective workload model and to redistributing resources to match the workload, actions which the ATF stated in its response to Recommendations 3 and 4 that it plans to undertake in FY 2005.
To develop a workload model for aligning Inspector resources with regulatory needs, the ATF must be able to segregate and analyze all Inspector time, not just time spent directly on conducting inspections. If the ATF does not categorize and measure Inspector work time by function, it will be difficult to establish appropriate performance goals, account for the variability among its divisions, or accurately report its productivity.
Please reconsider this response and provide us by August 3, 2004, whether the ATF will create a plan for updating the inspection tracking system to accurately segregate and report on all Inspector time or, in the alternative, how the ATF plans to develop a comprehensive workload model without such information.
Recommendation 6: Prepare quarterly reports on the productivity and results achieved by each Field Division.
Status: Resolved - Open
Summary of the ATF's Response: The ATF stated that to address this recommendation, it created the position of Assistant Director (Field Operations) to better manage the ATF's regulatory enforcement efforts in the field. One of the first tasks of the Assistant Director was the creation of a quarterly reporting system on inspection productivity and results by each Field Division. The ATF also established the Case Management Branch within the Field Operations Directorate for tracking and evaluating industry operations and criminal enforcement activities, conducting case comparisons, and making appropriate recommendations.
The OIG's Analysis: The ATF's proposed action is responsive to the recommendation. By October 31, 2004, please provide us with copies of the quarterly reports, as well as any annual compendium or other productivity analyses for FY 2004.
Recommendation 7: Direct the National Licensing Center to develop an adverse action tracking system to monitor the progress and timeliness of FFL denials and revocations from the time an Inspector makes a recommendation until the proceedings are finalized.
Status: Resolved - Open
Summary of the ATF's Response: The ATF concurred with this recommendation and tasked the Division Chief, Firearms and Explosives Services, with developing and monitoring an improved adverse action tracking system for denials and revocations of licenses. The ATF also intends to route an electronic version of monthly tracking reports to all Division Counsels and DIOs to better advise them of how many adverse actions are pending in their divisions and how long each case is taking to resolve. The ATF also plans to expand the tracking system to incorporate more indicators of case progress.
The OIG's Analysis: The ATF's proposed action is responsive to the recommendation. By August 3, 2004, please provide us with a copy of the functional description of the planned adverse action tracking system and a copy of the master schedule for the development and implementation of the system.
Recommendation 8: Continue coordinating with the Department of Justice, Office of Legislative Affairs, to gain the authority to suspend or impose civil penalties on FFLs that violate federal firearms laws.
Status: Resolved - Open
Summary of the ATF's Response: The ATF has indicated that it will continue to work with the Department of Justice's Office of Legislative Affairs on obtaining regulatory options such as license suspensions and the authority to issue civil penalties in lieu of license revocation. The ATF also clarified that it can impose fines in one limited circumstance, when an FFL fails to conduct a National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) check and that NICS check would have resulted in a denial of the sale.
The OIG's Analysis: The OIG considers this recommendation resolved. By October 31, 2004, please provide us with updates as to how the ATF is coordinating with the Office of Legislative Affairs. We made two minor changes in the report to make it clearer that the ATF has no general fining authority but can impose a fine in the limited circumstance described above.
Recommendation 9: To improve the comprehensiveness of crime gun tracing by law enforcement agencies:
a. Coordinate with the Office of Justice Programs to determine the feasibility of using discretionary grant funding to support crime gun tracing.
Status: Resolved - Open
Summary of the ATF's Response: The ATF's stated that it concurred with the recommendation and planned to initiate discussions with other Department entities on the feasibility of using discretionary grant funding to support local police departments that want to trace crime guns.
The OIG's Analysis: The ATF's proposed action is responsive to the recommendation. By October 31, 2004, please provide us with the dates of meetings held or planned and copies of minutes or other documentation of the topics discussed and the decisions made at the meetings.
b. Develop a model for more accurately identifying potential firearms trafficking through the analysis of an FFL's firearms sales volume and the number of firearms traced to the FFL.
Status: Resolved - Open
Summary of the ATF's Response: The ATF conditionally concurred with this recommendation, but stated that retail sales volumes are not captured for each FFL dealer on a yearly basis. Further, the ATF stated that the number of NICS checks submitted by each FFL is not a reliable indicator of sales because purchasers can acquire more than one firearm on a single NICS check and certain limited types of sales are exempt from a NICS check. However, the ATF proposed incorporating the sales data reported by FFL dealers applying to renew their licenses as a method to identify for inspection those FFLs with the highest ratios of traces to reported sales over a 3-year period.
The OIG's Analysis: The ATF's proposed action is responsive to the recommendation. However, our review found that the ATF's current compliance inspection procedures do not include steps to verify the renewal data submitted by the FFLs. We accept the ATF's proposed action, but request that the ATF modify its proposal to include adding steps to compliance inspections to verify the renewal data against actual FFL Acquisition and Disposition Book sales totals. By October 31, 2004, please provide us with the implementation plan for comparing FFL trace data and reported sales volume.
ATF COMMENTS ON REPORT FINDINGS
In addition to addressing the recommendations, the ATF remarked on the draft report's findings. In this section, we summarize the ATF's comments and provide our analysis of its planned actions.
FINDING: The ATF does not conduct in-person application inspections on all new FFLs to verify applicant information and ensure that they understand firearms laws.
The ATF's Comment: The ATF agreed that in-person application inspections are critical for ensuring that licensees understand and obey federal firearms laws. The ATF stated that it is taking steps to conduct in-person application inspections nationwide and noted that under its June 2004 policy, all applicants who do not receive an in-person application inspection must be scheduled for an in-person compliance inspection during the first year after they are issued a federal firearms license.
The OIG's Analysis: We agree with the ATF's comments and planned course of action.
FINDING: The ATF does not regularly conduct compliance inspections on active FFLs, including large-scale retailers.
The ATF's Comment: The ATF stated that it cannot conduct annual compliance inspections of all FFLs due to the large number of licensees (more than 104,000) and the small number of Inspectors (420). Instead, the ATF stated that it works to focus its compliance inspections [Focused Inspection Program] on those FFLs with a history of non-compliance and those FFLs with business practices that indicate signs of potential firearms trafficking. The ATF stated that many large-scale FFLs fall into one of these categories, thereby requiring that they be inspected. According to the ATF, "the fact that an FFL is large does not exclude it from being selected for inspection."
The OIG's Analysis: We agree with the ATF's statement that it cannot conduct annual compliance inspections on all FFLs with its current resources, and we did not suggest that the ATF attempt to do so in the report. To the contrary, we accepted the ATF's stated goal of conducting a compliance inspection on every FFL at least once every three years. With additional staffing and better utilization of its existing personnel, we believe that goal is attainable. In regard to the ATF's statement that large-scale FFLs are often inspected under its Focused Inspection Program and are not exempt from inspection, we note that although the ATF described these inspections as "mandatory," our interviews with DIOs found otherwise. Two DIOs described these inspections as "priorities," but stated that they do not complete all assigned Focused Inspections, including those of large-scale FFLs, because of competing demands. Further, the report did not state that large FFLs were exempt from inspection, but showed that they were statistically treated about the same as all other FFLs with respect to infrequent inspections.
FINDING: The ATF does not identify and inspect all FFLs that exhibited indicators of potential violations or gun trafficking.
The ATF's Comment: The ATF disagreed with our finding and stated that it "does identify all FFLs that exhibit indicators of potential violations or gun trafficking based on trace data available." However, the acknowledged that it "limit[s] inspection requirements based on our available Inspector resources." The ATF also stated that it plans to analyze other factors that should be utilized to determine which FFLs should be inspected.
The OIG's Analysis: During our inspection, we did not find that the ATF ever compiled a list of all FFLs that exhibited trafficking indicators (e.g., multiple traces, short time-to-crime traces). Instead, in describing how FFLs are identified for Focused Inspections, staff of the National Tracing Center (NTC) stated that they manipulated the query parameters by limiting the FFLs identified to a pre-selected number. That pre-selected number (350 in FY 2002) was based on the projected availability of Inspector resources. The ATF made no attempt to determine an unacceptable level of trafficking indicators for FFLs and then identify all FFLs that exceeded that level without regard to whether all of the FFLs could be inspected with existing resources. Therefore, we maintain our finding that the ATF has not identified all FFLs that exhibited indicators of potential violations or of firearm trafficking.
FINDING: Gun tracing has significant shortcomings that limit its use for identifying FFLs that should be inspected.
The ATF's Comment: The ATF agreed that gun tracing has "weaknesses" and stated that it plans to address shortcomings identified in our report by implementing Recommendation 9. The ATF disagreed with our comparison of traces submitted by law enforcement agencies within a Field Division to the number of inspections conducted in that Field Division and stated that the comparison is "not especially useful." The ATF stated that crime gun tracing patterns vary by region. The ATF also clarified that the NTC was moved to Martinsburg, West Virginia, in 1994 but stated that the ATF had conducted tracing before the NTC relocated.
The OIG's Analysis: We believe that our comparison of trace data to inspections is useful. We do not agree with the ATF's argument that the existence of national trafficking patterns negates the use of data on traces submitted in each Division to analyze the ATF's resource management.76 The ATF argues that the fact that more traces were submitted in a Division would not necessarily mean that more inspections should be conducted in that Division because the traced guns may have originally been sold by FFLs in other Divisions. Therefore, any inspections would have occurred in those Divisions, not in the Divisions where the traces were submitted.
However, the ATF's own analysis of crime gun recoveries (contained in its report Crime Gun Trace Reports 2000) found that 48 percent of crime guns were recovered within 25 miles of where they were originally sold. In contrast, national trafficking patterns (i.e., guns recovered more than 250 miles from where they were purchased) accounted for more than 30 percent of crime guns traced in only 9 cities (including cities that ban handguns, such as New York City, Washington, D.C., and Chicago). Those data indicate that the preponderance of guns recovered in a Division was of local origin. Therefore, we concluded that data on trace submissions could be used to approximate the distribution of crime gun traced to FFLs in the ATF's Field Divisions.
Comparing the number of trace requests to the number of inspections conducted in each Division shows whether, on a national level, trace data were used to direct resources toward inspecting FFLs in Divisions where more crime guns originated. Our analysis showed little or no ATF-wide correlation between the number of crime guns submitted to the ATF for tracing in a Field Division and the number of compliance inspections conducted in that Field Division. The lack of any correlation on a national level indicates that the ATF is not managing its resources to conduct more inspections in Divisions where more crime guns originated.
The ATF also stated that some Field Divisions use trace data to target inspections within the Division. We agree that this is a positive use of trace data, and we note in the report that the Divisions can and are using the data internally. However, the internal use of trace data by Divisions does not negate our primary finding that there is little or no correlation between the number of traces and the number of inspections ATF-wide. Likewise, the ATF's statement that some localities have few local guns traced (which we found was due to restrictions on handgun sales in the locality) does not negate our primary finding.
Regarding the ATF's comments on the NTC move to Martinsburg, we clarified that the ATF's gun tracing program operations were consolidated, not established, in 1994.
FINDING: ATF Field Divisions implement inspections inconsistently.
The ATF's Comment: The ATF stated that it has been working on standardizing and streamlining the present procedures for conducting inspections.
The OIG's Analysis: Although the ATF did not explicitly state whether it agrees with our finding, the ATF's planned course of action will address the problems we reported with varying inspection implementation by ATF Field Divisions and will lead to more consistent inspections across the agency.
FINDING: Suspected criminal violations are not always referred for investigation.
The ATF's Comment: The ATF stated that its June 2004 policy reminds Inspectors to initiate referrals to ATF Special Agents when inspections reveal potential trafficking indicators.
The OIG's Analysis: If followed, we agree that the ATF's new policy will address our finding and lead to more consistent referrals of suspected trafficking.
FINDING: The ATF acts infrequently to revoke federal firearms licenses, and the process is not timely. New ATF policy begins to address inconsistent and untimely adverse actions.
The ATF's Comment: The ATF disagreed with our finding that, prior to its new policy, the ATF acted "improperly" by infrequently revoking federal firearms licenses and noted that we did not find a specific case in which the ATF should have taken such action against an FFL. The ATF stated that our report "fails to note the critical components that comprise the decision to take adverse action against an FFL." The ATF stated that the report should note that not all violations of federal firearms laws warrant revocation of the FFL's license. Further, the ATF stated that the legal standard is "willfulness," and many violations "may be so inadvertent that they cannot satisfy the legal standard." In addition, the ATF noted that many applicants and licensees withdraw their requests for a federal firearms license rather than face revocation.
The OIG's Analysis: We did not identify any FFLs that the ATF allowed to stay in business when revocation was warranted because, as our report made clear, we did not re-inspect any FFLs during our review. Instead, we examined the ATF's overall processes.
Our report did not state that the ATF acted "improperly" by failing to revoke FFL licenses in the past. However, the ATF's own actions indicate that its past practices were inadequate. In our review, we found that 11 of the ATF's 23 Field Divisions took no revocation actions in FY 2002. Those 11 Field Divisions conducted a total of 1,936 compliance inspections that found 51,314 violation instances. To accept the ATF's logic would mean that those Field Divisions initiated no revocations because, despite the 51,314 violations - which ATF Inspectors spent more than 108,000 hours to find and document - the ATF found no case that indicated a pattern of willful disregard for federal firearms laws. If that were correct, we would question such an expenditure of resources to find and document minor infractions. We would also question the ATF's process for selecting FFLs to inspect in those Field Divisions, since it failed to make effective use of established indicators of trafficking to identify those FFLs among the 46,775 FFLs located in these Field Divisions that were likely to be willfully violating federal firearms laws. We believe such FFLs existed in those 11 Field Divisions. [During our review, we also noted news reports of corrupt FFLs being arrested in Miami, Los Angeles, and Phoenix.]
The ATF's argument that, in the past, it always properly revoked the licenses of FFLs that were willfully violating federal firearms laws is also contradicted by the substantial rise in revocations since the ATF issued revised adverse action guidelines. In the first quarter of FY 2004, the ATF issued Initial Notices of Revocation or denied renewal to 59 FFLs. If that rate continues, the ATF will revoke the licenses of almost eight times as many FFLs in FY 2004 as it did in FY 2002. Given the above, we do not find persuasive the ATF's argument that in the past it revoked the licenses of all FFLs that violated federal firearms laws.
FINDING: By streamlining and standardizing inspections, the ATF could dramatically improve the FFL inspection program.
The ATF's Comment: The ATF stated that it began addressing "deficiencies" in its inspection program prior to the initiation of our review and stated that it will closely monitor its Inspectors to ensure that they are following the June 2004 guidelines, which address deficiencies that the ATF identified as well as those we identified in our report.
The OIG's Analysis: We believe that the ATF's June 2004 guidelines and the planned actions described in its response to our recommendations will be effective for responding to the need we identified for the ATF to improve the FFL inspection program.
FINDING: The ATF does not consistently report inspection performance.
The ATF's Comment: The ATF stated that it is committed to ensuring the integrity of its performance indicators and stated that modifications and upgrades to its electronic databases will help ensure consistent reporting of inspection performance.
The OIG's Analysis: We believe that the ATF's planned course of action will lead to more accurate and consistent reporting of its inspection activities.
FINDING: New restrictions on retention of gun purchaser data will hinder the ATF's ability to detect fraudulent background checks.
The ATF's Comment: The ATF stated that a new restriction placed on data maintained by NICS does not hinder the ATF's ability to "ensure FFLs do not abuse the NICS system." The ATF stated that it is developing a procedure to allow Inspectors to obtain 90 days of FFL-specific NICS information from the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), which oversees NICS, prior to inspecting FFLs. The ATF stated that this information gives Inspectors the "ability to conduct NICS rechecks to ensure FFLs did not provide NICS with false information."
The OIG's Analysis: On the basis of the information provided by the ATF, we continue to believe that the new restriction on NICS information will reduce the ATF's ability to detect fraudulent NICS checks through an examination of FFL records. Even if ATF Inspectors are supplied with 90 days of FFL-specific NICS data from the FBI, all purchaser information on approved sales will be deleted within 24 hours. Therefore, the ATF can only assume that the purchaser information that was originally submitted to NICS was the same as the information that the Inspector submits for the recheck. If the recheck finds that a sale was allowed to a prohibited person, the ATF will have no way of determining from the FFLs' records whether the approval was due to an incorrect response from the NICS operator (i.e., the result of FBI error) or if it occurred because the FFL supplied incorrect purchaser information to NICS.
Moreover, the ATF will have no way of determining the cause of an incorrect NICS response once 90 days have elapsed because, after that time, the FBI also deletes the remaining FFL-specific information associated with approved NICS transaction numbers. We agree that conducting a recheck could potentially identify that a prohibited person obtained a gun. However, we continue to believe that the new NICS restriction will hinder the ability of the ATF to detect fraudulent NICS background checks by examining FFL records during compliance inspections.