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ATF Is More Active in Small Towns Than Big Cities, Study Says

September 7, 1996 GMT

WASHINGTON (AP) _ The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms refers disproportionately more criminal cases from rural areas and small cities to federal prosecutors than big urban centers, a Syracuse University analysis of government records concludes.

More criminal cases originate in places like Billings, Mont., Asheville, N.C. and Pensacola, Fla., on a per capita basis, than large cities such as New York, Los Angeles and Chicago, according to documents obtained by researchers.

In 1995, Montana had 127 cases for a population of 870,000 people, western North Carolina had 200 referrals out of a 2.2 million people and Northern Florida had 128 cases for 1.4 million people, according to the data.

In contrast, the Los Angeles area had 113 cases out of a population of nearly 16 million. The federal district including Manhattan had 172 cases for a population of 3 million, while the district including Chicago had 98 cases out of 8 million people.

The heavy concentration of small-town referrals coincides with a downturn in nationwide criminal cases brought by ATF over the last five years, the study said.

After surging in the 1980s and early 1990s, ATF referrals of gun, drug, explosives and other criminal matters fell about 24 percent to 7,540 in 1995 from 9,885 in 1992.

David Burnham, co-director of the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University, said the information suggests that the ATF is focusing more on rural areas when it should be concentrating on cities, where illegal guns are a huge problem.

``Is the central law enforcement problem in this country crime in districts that are somewhat more rural, or it is the gun problem in the cities?″ Burnham asked rhetorically. He gathered records from 90 U.S. district attorneys, the Justice Department, ATF and the Office of Personnel Management.

ATF denies it pursues crime in small towns more actively than it does in big cities.

``Referrals are not a benchmark of activity,″ ATF assistant director Patrick Hynes said. ``One referral could have ten defendants.″

One reason more cases originate in small towns is that local law enforcement agencies often find themselves under-manned, and rely on a federal agency like the ATF to investigate crimes. Another reason _ federal gun laws are often stricter than state laws, particularly in some states in the West, Hynes said.

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``We probably work the closest with local law enforcement officials,″ Hynes said. He said the agency is gathering its own records to check Burhnam’s information.

The data, to be published on the World Wide Web beginning Saturday, shows that the Montana federal district ranked No. 1 in criminal cases referred from ATF to prosecutors in 1995.

Larry Reinlasoder, a lieutenant with the Billings police department, said Montana has seen an increase in violent crimes involving guns.

``If we have a felon in possession of a firearm, it can be taken through the federal court system, but there’s no (applicable) state law, so we work closely with the ATF on those cases,″ Reinlasoder explained.

The ten districts with the highest number of ATF referrals compared to their population in 1995 were largely rural areas, such as Oklahoma or western North Carolina, or regions with small cities, such as Pensacola, Fla., Raleigh, N.C. and Mobile, Ala.

The data also showed:

_About 90 percent of all ATF criminal referrals involve firearms and 10 percent involve explosives, arson and other matters;

_ATF referrals on average result in more convictions and prison sentences than other federal agencies;

_criminals in cases referred by ATF are getting sentenced to longer prison terms. The median sentence in 1995 was 52 months, up from 30 months in 1992.

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EDS: The internet address is: http://www.trac.syr.edu/tracatf/