At the ATF, Taking on Gun Traffickers, Gangs, and Violence Crime

Q&A with the acting director of the Bureau for Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives.

By + More

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives doesn't bust many bootleggers or rum-runners these days. Instead, the federal agents who once called Eliot Ness one of their own are focused on weapons trafficking and violent crime. Michael Sullivan, who just completed his second year as the acting director of ATF, also heads efforts against crimes like identity theft, Internet auction fraud, and terrorism. The agency even sends agents to Iraq and Afghanistan to lend their explosives expertise to investigations there. Sullivan spoke with U.S. News about the agency's anticrime efforts. Excerpts:

Are gun trafficking cases like drug cases?

The toughest investigations to conduct at the local and federal level are firearms trafficking cases. To begin with, there are Second Amendment rights, and as a federal law enforcement agency, we'll zealously guard those rights. Drug investigations, in many ways, are a lot easier because in most instances, from beginning to end, the drugs are illegal. Guns, the vast majority of them, enter commerce legally, are used lawfully, and possessed legally. It's like that proverbial needle in the haystack trying to identify those few folks who put them into commerce illegally—the person who shows up to buy a gun for their brother or boyfriend who is a felon.  Ness famously brought in accountants to get Al Capone. What is ATF using today?

Forensics are the main element—blood or ballistics evidence, where we have the ability to link crime scenes to one another, even over the course of years. New investigations get solved faster, and old ones can be closed, too. Despite the advancements, I think the technology is still underutilized at the state and local level, either because of resource limitations or some officers not really appreciating the value of what they have. Even with the numerous spinoffs of TV's CSI, forensics are still underutilized?

Some communities do very little ballistics imaging work. But that ballistics evidence, if it was exploited, could link to another crime scene potentially and solve another case. Or at least provide some additional leads for an investigation that remains open. It would be nice to see every single weapon that's recovered by police traced. Studies show that crackdowns on gun runners have pushed criminals to buy guns from fewer dealers. How does that impact your cases?

Drugs come in truckloads—cocaine and heroin and marijuana. Illegal guns move one at a time, and the cases can be difficult because they don't have a lot of jury appeal. Weapons dealers don't have the risk of drug dealers, the protection is low, and the punishment is not that severe. As a result, a lot of people are willing to take the risks. One of our best partners is licensed dealers—the people that are out there lawfully conducting a business. They are, in many ways, the eyes and the ears of what's happening on the criminal side. Why is violent crime at nearly historic lows while gang crime is rising?

Especially over the last decade, you're seeing younger folks getting engaged in gangs and the associated violence. A lot of people struggle with what attracts young people to gangs and gang life, and there are a lot of things missing in some young people's lives that contribute to their decisions. But that's not always the case. There are some folks who come from very stable environments who find themselves involved in gang activity. Can violent crime levels fall lower?

It's possible, yes. With more resources, you get more results. And if you look at it from an agent-by-agent perspective, we do a tremendous number of investigations that result in significant referrals for federal prosecutions. ATF refers more people for federal prosecution per agent than any other federal law enforcement agency. What does ATF bring to gang cases?

We've been able to go undercover in some of these longer-term, sophisticated gang investigations, where we send agents to penetrate an outlaw motorcycle gang, for instance. We obviously bring some technology to the table as well, including the ballistic evidence and gun tracing evidence. Then there's electronic surveillance. Gangs operate at all hours of the day and all hours of the week, and we have to be prepared to do the exact same thing. That means that we give up weekends, and we give up holidays, and, you know, family time in order to have a successful investigation. And our partners at the state and local level are doing exactly the same.