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US gun agency lacking means

WASHINGTON — Amid an intense debate over gun control following the mass shooting in Connecticut, the federal agency at the heart of firearms regulation in America is so beleaguered and under-resourced that it has not had a confirmed director in six years.

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, a division of the Justice Department, is supposed to regulate the nation’s gun industry. But many within ATF say it is the industry that dominates the agency.

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The gun lobby, concerned about government regulation of firearms ownership, has taken steps to limit the resources available to ATF and to prevent the agency from having a strong leader, according to former and current ATF officials.

For decades, the National Rifle Association has lobbied successfully to block all attempts to computerize records of gun sales, arguing against any kind of national registry of firearms ownership. And despite the growth of the gun industry and the nation’s population, ATF has fewer agents today than it did nearly four decades ago: fewer than 2,500.

‘‘If the administration and Congress are serious about addressing this problem, they need to fund the gun police, the agency charged with administering the firearms regulations,’’ said Michael Bouchard, a former ATF assistant director. ‘‘Unless they are going to do this completely, simply passing some form of gun legislation is only part of the solution.’’

The man at the helm of ATF is B. Todd Jones, an interim acting director who works part time at the agency, juggling his position there with his job as US attorney in Minnesota.

‘‘ATF has struggled to competently enforce the firearms laws already on the books,’’ said Representative Darrell Issa, Republican of California, who has spearheaded a congressional investigation into the agency’s botched gun investigation along the Mexican border. ‘‘Posing a challenge to an agency needing consistent leadership, the acting director is currently working part time and out of Minneapolis.’’

An ATF spokesman declined to comment.

President Obama’s nominee to be ATF’s permanent director is Andrew Traver, who oversees the bureau’s Chicago office. But his nomination has been stalled in the Senate for two years because Traver raised the ire of the gun lobby with comments it has characterized as antifirearm. The NRA, which immediately opposed his nomination, has said Traver is linked to gun-control advocates and antigun activities in Chicago.

No permanent ATF director has been on the job in the six years since Congress required that the position be confirmed by the Senate. That action allowed the gun lobby to have a say about the agency’s leadership, according to ATF officials.

Even Michael J. Sullivan, a former US attorney in Boston nominated by President George W. Bush, could not get confirmed. He was blocked by three senators who accused him of being hostile to gun dealers.

Past and current Justice Department officials say the gun lobby has further hampered the work of ATF by moving to block the government’s attempts to put gun-ownership records into an easily accessible computer database.

ATF, which has a budget of about $1.1 billion, is charged with investigating gun trafficking and regulating firearms sales. However, it is able to inspect only a fraction of the nation’s 60,000 retail gun dealers each year, with as much as eight years between visits to stores.

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