The ATF is a Captured Agency

Ladd Everitt
9 min readJun 18, 2019

On May 24, the White House announced President Trump was nominating Fraternal Order of Police national president Chuck Canterbury to lead the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF)—the agency tasked with enforcing federal gun laws. It was a curious promotion for a man who has never led a law enforcement department/agency (Canterbury retired as a major after 26 years with the Horry County Police Department in South Carolina), but then again Canterbury wasn’t tapped to crack down on corrupt gun dealers or reduce gun violence. Instead, Trump and his financial benefactors at the National Rifle Association (NRA) hope he can complete a hostile takeover of the ATF that began years ago.

“I take a back seat to no one in my reverence for the Second Amendment,” Fraternal Order of Police national president (and current ATF director nominee) Canterbury bragged to the Senate in 2009.

One of the key missions of the ATF is to protect the public from crimes involving firearms. Presently, however, the ATF is a captured agency led by individuals who represent the interests of the corrupt gun industry they are supposed to be regulating. This is the result of decades of the NRA encouraging violence against ATF personnel (“jack-booted thugs”); decimating the agency’s enforcement authority, budget and manpower; and denying it leadership—with the explicit approval of Republicans and grudging acceptance of Democrats. For virtuous law enforcement professionals, ATF assignments are no-win situations with gloomy career prospects. Into this morass of morale have stepped grifters willing to advance the commercial and political priorities of the gun industry — ethics be damned — with the promise they’ll be rewarded once they re-enter the private sector.

In 2017, a FOIA request by the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence uncovered a secret white paper drafted by then-ATF associate deputy director Ronald Turk just eight days after Donald Trump was elected president of the United States. In the initial draft, Turk said his purpose was to “provide the new President and his administration multiple options regarding the regulation of firearms.” But the title mentioned “Securing 2nd Amendment Rights,” which has never been a mission of the ATF in its 47-year history.

Turk proposed deregulating silencers and armor-piercing ammunition. He also advocated doing away with a rule that require gun dealers on the southwest border to report multiple sales of assault rifles to a single individual (in order to curb illegal gun trafficking into Mexico). Such regulations “place a burden on the gun industry,” Turk explained. None of the paper’s recommendations suggested strengthening America’s gossamer gun laws, despite the fact that more than 100,000 Americans are shot each year.

ATF associate deputy director Ron Turk allowed an NRA lobbyist to edit an agency white paper advocating for the deregulation of the gun industry.

On January 9, 2017, Turk emailed his draft white paper to NRA lobbyist Mark Barnes. “If I am missing the mark on a major issue or disregarding a major discussion point any feedback you have would be appreciated," he told Barnes. The NRA lobbyist responded with edits, many of which were accepted by Turk. The final version of the paper was titled “Options to Reduce or Modify Firearms Regulations.” It added even more recommendations to deregulate the gun industry, to include weakened federal oversight of gun dealers and new rules allowing dealers to sell firearms across state lines at gun shows. At no point did Turk (or any ATF official) notify gun control groups about the draft white paper and request their input.

When the white paper first became public, ATF lied about it, saying Turk was speaking only for himself. In truth, Turk printed the document on ATF letterhead and circulated it to multiple senior staffers with the agency for their thoughts/comments. The white paper was approved by then-acting ATF director Thomas Brandon himself. “Nice job!” he told Turk.

Four former ATF leaders currently work as “expert consultants“ for Mark Barnes & Associates, a “boutique law firm handling all matters related to firearms.” Their names and former ATF titles are as follows: Wally Nelson (assistant director in charge of inspection programs), Richard Deshaies (special inspector), Robert Pumpelly (gun industry operations investigator), and Lawrence White (firearms import specialist). In addition to lobbying for the NRA, the firm represents federally licensed gun dealers (FFLs) in legal proceedings with the ATF.

FFLGuard LLC is another firm that represents dealers whose firearms go “missing” and end up at crimes scenes. Former ATF leaders working at FFLGuard include Rick Vasquez (chief of firearms technology), Jim Zammillo (chief of programs), Michael Bouchard (assistant to the director), and Scot Thomasson (chief of operations division). In 2010, while still at ATF, Vasquez ruled the agency could not classify bump stocks as machine guns in order to regulate them under federal law.

A textbook case of regulatory capture, these firms pay former ATF agents to utilize their personal relationships inside the agency to get sweetheart deals for gun dealers who break the law. By any reasonable standard, this corrupt strategy is working beautifully. A Brady lawsuit against ATF discovered that less than 1% of ATF inspections result in gun dealers having their licenses revoked. This isn’t because dealers’ compliance with the law is exemplary — more than half are cited for violations of federal law! Yet ATF leaders “routinely overrule inspectors and allow gun dealers who violate the law to stay open for business.”

Some of these cases are egregious. As reported by the New York Times:

One store was cited for failing to conduct background checks before selling a gun. Another store owner told investigators he actively tried to circumvent gun laws. One threatened an A.T.F. officer, and another sold a gun to a customer who identified as a felon. All were previously cited by the A.T.F. In each instance, supervisors downgraded recommendations that the stores’ licenses be revoked and instead let them stay open.

Firms like Mark Barnes’ and FFLGuard makes no secret of their allegiance with the gun lobby. FFLGuard’s website features hysterical, fearmongering propaganda commonly associated with the NRA and the Newtown-based National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF):

Despite hopes that the new [Trump] administration will reign in the ATF, FFLs still face aggressive and invasive ATF compliance audits during the course of their business. When you couple this with oppressive lawsuits filed against FFLs by the mayors of various municipalities and anti-gun groups, the businesses and livelihood of every FFL in the country are at risk.

Revolving-Door Politics: In 2016, ex-ATF director Michael Sullivan’s law firm announced “a cooperative program to deliver strategic advisory, regulatory, compliance and legal services to the firearms industry” with Orchid Advisers, “an NSSF preferred vendor and leaders in FFL technology, payments and firearms compliance.”

Also aligned with the gun lobby is former ATF acting director Michael Sullivan, a nominee of Republican President George W. Bush. Sullivan left the agency and returned to private practice as a lawyer. In 2016, NSSF retained his services when it sued Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey for prohibiting the sale of "copycat" assault rifles.

As bad as acting ATF directors have been since the last permanent one in 2013 (B. Todd Jones), Canterbury’s open hostility to gun laws would be a new wrinkle. Canterbury’s tenure as national president at the Fraternal Order of Police dates back to 2003, but the organization has been ardently pro-gun since Jim Pasco — a former ATF legislative director who got a little too cozy with NRA lobbyist James Baker — arrived in 1995.

FOP became one of the first national organizations to endorse Donald Trump for president in part because they liked what he had to say about guns and gun violence. On his candidate questionnaire, Trump assured FOP he would enact no new laws to address America’s epidemic of gun violence. “The Second Amendment is sacrosanct and will in no way be modified in my administration,” he wrote. “Gun control laws are not the answer to gun violence.” Second, Trump promised to rescind an executive order by President Obama that limited the transfer of military equipment to local law enforcement (just two years after the protests in Ferguson, Missouri). Finally, Trump made it clear he would not be speaking out against gun violence committed by police.

In a laughable announcement on September 16, 2016, Canterbury explained FOP was endorsing Trump because “has seriously looked at the issues facing law enforcement today.” “Our members believe [Trump] will make America safe again,” he claimed. In truth, FOP members had nothing to do with Trump’s endorsement, which was decided by board members and executives. Many took offense at it.

The endorsement wasn’t the last favor Canterbury would do for Trump, however. In November, it emerged that Pasco and Canterbury might have changed FOP’s position on a bipartisan bill to overhaul federal sentencing guidelines in order to secure a “big job” for Canterbury inside the Trump administration. “It was a confluence of timing,” explained one of Canterbury’s close friends. “I don’t think there’s anything nefarious or untoward.”

When ATF deputy Ron Turk sent acting director Thomas Brandon (above) a white paper on gun industry deregulation co-authored by the NRA, Brandon’s response was “Nice job!”

Now that Trump has repaid Canterbury for his loyalty by nominating him for ATF director, the gun lobby is gushing over the pick. “President Trump’s confidence in nominating Mr. Canterbury to lead the ATF shows his dedication to ensuring continued cooperation from the firearms industry,” NSSF lobbyist Larry Keane said ominously in a statement. In the same endorsement, NSSF praised then-acting ATF director Thomas Brandon for “guid[ing] the ATF through improvements benefiting [firearm] manufacturers and retailers … Brandon brought a renewed focus on open cooperation between the ATF and [gun] industry.”

If Chuck Canterbury is confirmed by the U.S. Senate as the new ATF director, we should expect to see him:

· Acquiesce to further reductions in the ATF’s minuscule budget, manpower and authorities.
· Give NRA lobbyists like Mark Barnes a seat at the table when it comes to writing agency policy and procedures.
· Work behind the scenes with the NRA on Capitol Hill to further weaken federal gun laws.
· Exacerbate the disturbing pattern of ATF leaders overruling inspectors in the field on license revocations.
· Use his newfound power inside the executive to defend police abuses, including the shooting of unarmed people of color.

Like other agencies in the Trump administration, an ATF run by Canterbury would be overtly politicized and no longer accountable to the people. Trump has already mentioned relieving ATF of its alcohol and tobacco responsibilities. With the United States facing an epidemic of gun violence without parallel in the free world, an ATF under Canterbury would cease to play a significant role in preventing the diversion of firearms to violent people.

NRA lobbyist Mark Barnes (above) would have a seat at the table in a Canterbury-led ATF.

Some have suggested the responsibility for regulating the firearms industry should be transferred to an agency that is trusted and institutionally strong, like the FBI. The FBI’s ability to withstand political attacks and remain independent might seem tenuous during a time when it is being actively challenged by an authoritarian president, but even in this context the bureau is infinitely more respected than the ATF. The FBI also has some experience in enforcing gun laws, having administered the National instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) for gun buyers since 1998.

Gun violence in America is too grave a problem to have anything but top-notch enforcement of federal gun laws. Senate Democrats should oppose Canterbury’s nomination with everything they have. It’s time to think seriously about how to protect and preserve the federal government’s critical role in reducing gun violence.

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Update: Trump withdrew Canterbury’s nomination on May 19, 2020, after a series of smaller pro-gun groups like Gun Owners of America and the National Association on Gun Rights flanked the NRA to the right and portrayed the nominee as secretly pro-gun control. Their one piece of evidence was that Canterbury had spoken in favor of the federal assault weapons ban when the FOP board of directors endorsed the policy in the 1990s (pre-Pasco). Canterbury joined FOP’s national executive board in 1995 before becoming national president in 2003. It mattered little to attention-seeking senators like Ted Cruz and John Kennedy that Canterbury promised not to support any new gun laws or regulations at his confirmation hearing. They saw an opportunity to tout their credentials as the most right-wing senator and fundraise and ran with it. If a nominee as corrupt as Canterbury isn’t acceptable to Republicans, we should expect the ATF to remain without a permanent director indefinitely.

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Ladd Everitt

Ladd Everitt is a comms pro & gun control expert who’s worked for Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, George Takei's One Pulse for America, and Million Mom March.