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ATF head Jones reflects on agency’s outdated technology, system vulnerabilities

November 14, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
As the new director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, B. Todd Jones has the "tall task" of keeping track of America's 300 million guns. Judy Woodruff interviews Jones about the challenges his agency faces in reining in gun-related violence and keeping up with new technologies despite limited resources.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Now to our newsmaker interview with B. Todd Jones, the new director of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Firearms, Tobacco and Explosives. The agency, charged with keeping track of the nation’s 300 million guns, lacked a permanent head for the last seven years. Jones was appointed shortly after the tragic shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut, and he was confirmed in July.

I spoke with him this afternoon at the bureau’s headquarters here in Washington.

Director Todd Jones, thank you for talking with us.

B. TODD JONES, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives: Well, thank you for being here.

JUDY WOODRUFF: In your confirmation hearings to become the director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, you called this an agency in distress.

Others have called it the neglected stepchild of federal law enforcement. They have called it a bureau under siege. How do you see it now that you’re here?

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B. TODD JONES: I call it a resilient law enforcement agency.

I had the privilege of serving in an acting capacity for two years, which gave me the benefit of getting to know the people, getting to know the organization — the organization better, and also identifying some immediate actions that we wanted to take. And it’s — 24 months has gone by really fast.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The ATF hadn’t had a permanent director for seven years before you took the job. You have a budget that is — yes, it’s grown, but it’s not nearly as vast as the budgets of the FBI, the Drug Enforcement Agency.

It’s been pointed out your number of agents smaller than many city municipal police departments, sheriff’s departments. How are you managing?

B. TODD JONES: I have got a good team. Having good people is always important.

You know, we have the benefit of a very experienced special agent work force, but we are on the cusp of losing a generation of agents, so to speak. So it’s absolutely critical that we have the opportunity in short order to rebuild our work force cadre in a way that makes sense and will allow us to function for the next 10 years.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But how strapped do you feel for resources?

B. TODD JONES: Well, ATF is an organization, whether it’s in the Justice Department or Treasury, that’s always made do with what they have got, done a lot with very little.

Our work force per capita has remained pretty static over the history of the bureau, which is 40 years now as a stand-alone bureau.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, of course, one of your principal priorities has to do with guns. Let’s the talk about that for a minute.

The NRA, the rest of the gun rights lobby has worked very hard since the ATF was created to limit your budget and, among other things, to say that you shouldn’t have the ability in a large sense to go after guns that are used in crimes, that are used in the commission of crimes. How much has that affected what you’re able to do here?

B. TODD JONES: We have an area of expertise in the firearms realm that was really statutorily given to us in 1968. The Gun Control Act was a pivot point for this organization.

And over the years, we have assumed additional jurisdictional reaches, arson, explosives. But at the core of what we do is really to regulate the legal commerce in firearms and to work to enforce the Gun Control Act when those firearms migrate into the black market or the illegal market.

And that’s a tall task.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But you — but, at the same time, we know that, again, thanks to the work of the gun rights lobby, there’s not even a computerized system to keep track of guns that are used in the commission of crimes. How much does that hamper the work that you do here?

B. TODD JONES: Well, ironically, I think we have been able to do the job, not as well as we could, because we’re really operating with 20th century technology in the 21st century.

There are things that we could do, fully aware that it is against the law for us to do anything approaching a national gun registry. And that’s been the fact since the Firearms Owner Protection Act. So we have a lot of folks in Martinsburg, West Virginia, who are very responsive to our gun trace program.

Could we do it better with a little bit more open-mindedness and less of a fear factor that we’re going to do something that would violate the law? Yes. Are we doing the job right now that we need to do? Yes.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, I ask you because, as you know — you know these statistics better than I do — from 2004 to 2011, the rate of lost or stolen guns rose 18 percent, a total of almost 175,000 firearms unaccounted for. That was the ATF’s responsibility.

B. TODD JONES: Well, I mean…

JUDY WOODRUFF: I’m asking, was it the ATF’s responsibility?

B. TODD JONES: You know, like any other legal commerce here, there are vulnerabilities in the system.

One of the fundamental things that we’re very much aware of is the volume of firearms in this country. The legal commerce in firearms, the business of the firearms industry is such that, you know, there are 300 million firearms in this country. Some of those firearms have migrated from legal, non-prohibited persons, non-prohibited licensed businesses into the black market.

And unlike a loaf of bread or anything else, there’s no expiration date on a gun. And so one of our challenges is to really figure out ways to drain that illegal crime gun pool. And that’s very difficult, because the convergence of that very deeply held belief in the Second Amendment constitutional rights of Americans, as the Supreme Court has stated in recent case law, that Second Amendment right, we don’t believe should butt up against our responsibilities for public safety, because our focus really is on that illegal crime gun pool.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Meanwhile, there is a new worry in law enforcement.

In fact, your — your — the bureau just put out, I guess, a warning this week about plastic guns, which are becoming more and more available, but they can evade metal detection. How big a worry is this?

B. TODD JONES: Ten years ago, I don’t think people were thinking about 3-D printing capabilities. But as computer power increases and innovation kicks in, the 3-D printing capabilities that allow people to create weapons with computer-assisted programs and literally within a matter of hours create a gun is a challenge.

And for us, right now, it’s running up against the sunsetting of the Undetectable Firearms Acts, which is scheduled to sunset at the end of this year. And that’s converging with this technological leap that is raising public safety concerns for us.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, just quickly, what needs to be done?

B. TODD JONES: Well, I think that the Congress needs to look at that statute and not let it lapse, and look at maybe ways to enhance what’s on the books, because, again, that’s an older statute. And it was primarily driven so that metal detectors could detect metal in firearms so that they could create some level of safety.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives, Todd Jones, thank you very much.

B. TODD JONES: Thank you.