Double Standard: ATF Doesn’t Apply Its Strict Zero-Tolerance Policy to Its Own Operations

ATF agents
Courtesy ATF

By Joe Bartozzi

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) is showing the public that the “zero-tolerance” policy they apply to firearm retailers doesn’t seem to apply inside the bureau. When it comes to the administrative oversight of federal laws, there appear to be serious issues within ATF.

At least two U.S. senators are demanding answers.

There are disturbing reports that ATF officials have been misclassifying non-law enforcement positions within the bureau as law enforcement – including for some positions in leadership. If true, that’s a violation of federal law and it appears to have been happening for decades. On top of breaking federal law, those violations have potentially cost American taxpayers nearly $88 million.

One-Way Zero-Tolerance

That’s not just an oversight. This misclassification was brought to ATF leadership’s attention by whistleblowers as early as 2018 but was ignored.

Contrast that with ATF’s “zero-tolerance” policy. That crackdown by the ATF on firearm retailers – many of which have been over minor clerical errors – has cost many mom-and-pop shops their licenses and livelihoods. Businesses have been lost. Cases that were previously addressed and closed were re-opened and licenses revoked.

NSSF reported in July 2023 that ATF has conducted 6,609 inspections of Federal Firearms Licensees (FFLs) – starting on Oct. 1, 2022, which is when the federal government’s fiscal calendar begins. ATF inspectors conducted an average of 647.33 inspections across the nation per month, topping 2022’s monthly average of 587.66.

Warning Conferences, or results of an inspection that warrant a meeting with ATF’s Industry Operations Inspectors (IOIs), were at 111 for the first nine months. There were 136 for the entirety of FY 2022. Revocations of federal firearms licenses topped 122 by July 2023. They were just 92 for all of FY 2022.

To add context, in fiscal year 2020 (ending on Sept. 30), the year President Joe Biden was elected, there were 5,823 ATF inspections of FFL holders. That year, there were just 40 license revocations, with another 96 FFL holders that went out of business or surrendered their licenses. The ATF inspections in FY 2020 resulted in 306 Warning Conferences and another 804 warning letters. Warning letters were routinely issued for minor clerical errors in record keeping, like misspelled names, dates recorded incorrectly or other administrative errors.

ATF agents FFL inspection
Courtesy ATF

Data incorrectly logged into records cost some shop owners their business licenses. When ATF misclassifies their records – and doesn’t correct it even when it is brought to their attention – accountability is an afterthought. No one’s job is lost. No one is held accountable for breaking a federal law. It certainly appears that a double standard exists, depending upon which side of the regulator/regulated fence one is on.

ATF Broke the Law

What’s more is that the whistleblowers who tried to correct this think they might be just scratching the surface. That’s why Iowa’s Republican U.S. Sens. Chuck Grassley and Joni Ernst are demanding answers from ATF Director Steven Dettelbach and his boss, U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland.

“The whistleblowers also allege the 91 misclassified positions OPM identified may not represent the full scope of ATF’s illegally misclassified positions,” Sens. Grassley and Ernst wrote. “It is alleged that hundreds of ATF employees from across the country were hired under individual position descriptions OPM identified as misclassified; however, a full audit or review has not been conducted to ensure that all the employees in these positions are performing law enforcement duties and not unlawfully receiving enhanced benefits and pay at the cost to taxpayers.”

But wait, there’s more.

“Therefore, while OSC found that ATF’s misconduct led to overpaying employees up to $20 million from 2016-2021, the true cost to taxpayers could be substantially more,” the senators continued in their letter. “For example, it is alleged that up to 800 employees across ATF Divisions and Field Offices still occupy positions OPM identified as misclassified. Even if half of these positions are misclassified, during the five-year period reviewed by OPM, ATF would have wasted close to $88 million in taxpayer dollars, more than four times the figure OSC identified.”

According to the senators’ letter, the violation was serious enough that the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) suspended ATF’s authority to classify positions as law enforcement in 2020. However, on May 2, 2023, the Office of Special Counsel (OSC) reported that a subsequent investigation confirmed the whistleblowers’ accounts and ATF said it would work with OPM and the Justice Management Division at the Department of Justice (DOJ) to fix the problems. ATF couldn’t provide any records to support reasons why they classified headquarters jobs as law enforcement roles. However, on Nov. 8, 2023, ATF Director Steven Dettelbach told ATF employees that OPM restored authority to classify jobs.

Demanding Accountability

The senators laid out in their letter several instances of headquarters roles being misclassified. The time for answers, they said, is overdue.

“The American public must know ATF will not revert to its previous impropriety after the restoration of its classification authority,” Sens. Grassley and Ernst wrote.

Sadly, there’s more to these allegations. We understand that the senators “have received credible allegations that ATF engaged in retaliation against the whistleblowers who exposed ATF’s substantial waste, fraud, and abuse.”

Sens. Grassley and Ernst reminded ATF that, “Whistleblower retaliation is the enemy of a transparent government and corrective action must be taken against all those engaged in reprisal.”

Ironically, this is happening under an administration that President Joe Biden promised would be the “most transparent” in history.

“Zero-tolerance” has been a divisive policy that the Biden administration is using to shutter firearm businesses in small towns and cities across America. The ATF has vigorously carried out this policy. However, when it comes to applying that same vigor to investigate serious allegations within the bureau, it appears they are left wanting.


Joe Bartozzi is the President and CEO of the National Shooting Sports Foundation

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