B. Todd Jones will become the first confirmed director of the ATF since Carl Truscott left in disgrace in August, 2006, once Sen. Heidi Heitkamp returns to Capitol Hill on Wednesday evening and casts the 60th vote to end the filibuster of his nomination. Since Truscott's departure, the agency has had no confirmed director. It's had several acting ones, including Jones.
In his push for gun reforms after the Sandy Hook massacre, Obama made the confirmation of a director one of his main priorities. "The ATF has not had a confirmed director for six years," his plan read. "There is no excuse for leaving the key agency enforcing gun laws in America without a leader." An editorial at Bloomberg News explained the role's importance.
The ATF is responsible for conducting regulatory inspections of the nation’s more than 123,000 licensed gun dealers. As a Department of Justice report released in April made clear, the agency is so hindered by congressionally imposed obstacles and “insufficient investigator resources” that it can’t adequately perform its duties. In addition to preventing the ATF from keeping computerized records of gun transactions, Congress passed legislation prohibiting the agency from inspecting a licensed gun dealer more than once a year. Because the ATF has only 2,500 agents to police guns, tobacco, alcohol and explosives, the majority of gun dealers received no inspection at all from the understaffed agency over a five-year period.
Does this matter? Yes. Because as the ATF has been without a leader, gun sales have hit new highs.
The seven year drought can be measured by the number of guns that have been purchased in the United States. While it's not an exact equivalent, we use the FBI's data on background checks as a proxy for that number. Looking at data for the months between September 1, 2006, and June 30, 2013 — the complete period during which America had no director of the ATF — we got a sense for how many weapons have traded hands while the ATF had only temporary leadership.
The number of background checks? 104,011,544. One hundred four million and change; one every two seconds. If it were inches, it would reach two-thirds of the way from New York to Los Angeles.
Or, put another way, this many. (Each dot is one background check.)