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Thomas Brandon, ATF deputy director: Trump budget to strain agency further

March 14, 2019 GMT

The deputy director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives broke with the White House on Wednesday over the administration’s 2020 budget proposal, saying it would further hollow out an agency already straining for resources.

Thomas Brandon told lawmakers on Capitol Hill that under President Trump’s latest budget proposal, his agency would lose 377 positions to attrition.

“You hear people say, ‘trim the fat.’ Then we trimmed into muscle and now we’re trimming into bone,” Mr. Brandon testified to a House Appropriations subcommittee. “ATF won’t be able to do what it can do today.”

His comments marked a striking dissent for an administration official, and he also discussed the potential benefits of a bill the White House opposes that extends the amount of time the FBI can get to perform gun-purchase background checks.

The White House has issued a veto threat on that Democratic bill, saying it places “burdensome delays” on lawful purchasers.

Mr. Brandon said that while he would defer to the White House’s position, delays can help authorities keep guns out of the wrong hands.

“If there’s more time, there’s less [delayed] denials and that’s just making a logical inference of the more time you have, the more time you have to make a better decision,” he said.

Democrats on the Commerce, Justice and Science subcommittee praised his forthright answer, as they weigh the new 2020 budget submitted this week.

It calls for $29.2 billion for the Department of Justice, which oversees the ATF, FBI, the Drug Enforcement Administration, and the federal court system a 2 percent decrease from 2019.

More details on funding for the FBI and ATF, both part of the department, are forthcoming, but Mr. Brandon said from what he knows, his agency will suffer.

“I’m not an alarmist by nature and I’m fiscally conservative. But I wouldn’t be doing my job speaking to you distinguished folks if I didn’t rightfully say ATF needs to be funded we’re a good investment,” he told lawmakers.

The ATF was allocated $1.3 billion in for 2019, which marked a slight boost from the year before. But Mr. Brandon said it’s not enough to keep pace with everything the agency is expected to do, coupled with advances in technology.

“Even though our budget has gone up, the costs have gone up higher,” he said. “I know we’re not alone, except the one thing they would maybe feel is that we’re under-appreciated for the job that these brave men and women do.”

He said recent cuts are already being felt for ATF, which investigates and monitors crimes like illegal gun trafficking and alcohol and tobacco smuggling.

In 2018, for example, there were 135,000 federally-licensed firearms dealers in the United States, and just 641 field investigators tasked with inspecting the dealers’ facilities and responding to what had been a rising tide of burglaries from them.

Rep. Jose Serrano, New York Democrat, said lawmakers are getting the message.

“We’re on your side. We know the work you need to do. We want you to do more of it,” he said. “Given the diversity and seriousness of your missions, we have too often underfunded some of your critical functions.”

Christine Halverson, the acting assistant director of the FBI division that oversees the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) for gun purchases, also said at the hearing that her agency would be better off with additional funding.

Ms. Halverson said they frequently “surge” employees from other areas in anticipation of particularly busy gun-buying days, like Black Friday.

“We’re ending up surging employees from other areas to assist in the gun check process,” she said.

Rep. Robert Aderholt, Alabama Republican, asked Ms. Halverson what the effect on the FBI would be if all states required background checks on private gun sales across the country.

“Obviously, the workload would tremendously increase, but we don’t know what that would be because right now private sales aren’t tracked,” Ms. Halverson said.

House Democrats recently passed legislation that would expand the checks to cover virtually all gun sales. Right now, only federally-licensed dealers are required to perform the checks.

The House also passed separate legislation recently that would extend the time period a dealer has to wait to hear back from the FBI before proceeding with a sale from three days to 10 days, and potentially longer if there’s an extension.

Rep. Matt Cartwright, Pennsylvania Democrat, had asked Mr. Brandon about the effects of that bill, which aims to close the so-called “Charleston loophole” after a gunman who killed nine people at a South Carolina Church in 2015 was able to get a gun despite a pending drug charge.