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ATF Tackles Big Gun License Backlog As Congress Tries To Avoid Second Shutdown

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives offices in Washington, D.C.
A.C. Valdez
Guns & America
The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives offices in Washington, D.C.

After thelongest government shutdown in U.S. history, government investigators and contractors who process firearms dealer and special weapons licenses are staring at an application backlog that likely runs into the tens of thousands. As the possibility of another shutdown looms, so, too, does the the likelihood of that backlog increasing exponentially.

During the partial government shutdown the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) operated on a limited basis, like many other federal agencies. ATF is responsible for approving Federal Firearms Licenses for gun dealers, who must apply for licenses and keep them current.

Anyone waiting on approval to open a gun store around the time of the shutdown was probably out of luck, and it still might be a while before they can open their doors.

» RELATED | Go to more stories from the Guns & America project

ATF also handles special licenses for weapons covered by theNational Firearms Act, which regulates machine guns, short-barreled rifles, several other classes of specialty weapons and explosives.

ATF spokeswoman April Langwell said it's difficult to pin down exactly how many pending licenses would have been resolved were it not for the35-day shutdown. In a typical month, ATF typically receives roughly 1,000 new dealer license applications and roughly 30,000 National Firearms Act licenses.

Those numbers fluctuate and don't include renewals, which were also on hold during the shutdown.

Former ATF agent Howard Wolfe, who served 30 years in the bureau, was an area supervisor during the 1995 shutdown, which held the previous record for longest shutdown. He worries pressure to get through the backlog could lead to less scrutiny for some of the applications.

"They're going to be trying to catch up to the backlog as quickly as they can and that may mean they take a couple of shortcuts, not trying to miss something but saying, 'OK, can we take a little shortcut and get this done quicker?'" he said. "And if that happens, they may miss something."

However, Langwell said that while it's impossible to know how long that delay will be, applications will be processed in the order they were received and the inspectors won't be cutting any corners to speed through the backlog.

"I'm not worried about our employees doing their job," she said. "They're going to do them thoroughly and keep the public safe."

Who Stays On The Job During A Shutdown

Roughly 800,000 government employees were either furloughed or worked without pay during the shutdown. That doesn't take into account contractors, on whom the ATF partially relies for processing applications.

Here's how the ATF operates during a partial government shutdown:

  • The ATF keeps essential staff on the job, albeit unpaid, including agents in the field and industry operations investigators, the investigators who ensure gun shops are complying with the law.
  • Staff who analyze data for criminal investigations also stay on the job.
  • The National Instant Criminal Background Check System continues to operate, according to the FBI, which runs the system. That means people can legally purchase guns from dealers.

Dealers that apply to renew their federal firearms licenses by their deadline are able to legally operate on their expired licenses while they wait for a decision.
Of course, while federal workers are now back on the job, there's no guarantee the government will stay open.

If negotiations to fund the government break down again — or if President Donald Trump refuses to sign a compromise bill — gun dealers and owners alike might be looking at further delays as the backlog grows anew.

KERA is part of Guns & America, a national reporting collaborative of 10 public media newsrooms focusing attention on the role of guns in American life. You can find more Guns & America coverage here, and learn more about the collaboration here.