Justice Department wants to boost ATF budget to shorten wait for NFA processing

As the Justice Department moves to regulate bump stocks like machine guns, it’s also proposing to shorten the wait time to transfer such items.

For “combating violent crime,” the Justice Department proposed increasing the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives’ budget in Fiscal Year 2019 by $13.2 million “to ensure timely execution of National Firearms Act transfers.”

The proposal would also boost ATF’s NFA branch with 25 new positions, according to ATF’s request. The goal is process applications for items like machine guns, silencers, short barreled rifles or shotguns, and firearms deemed Any Other Weapon within 90 days.

According to ATF data, wait times for NFA items vary depending on the item but the agency currently puts average processing time at nine months, or about 270 days. That figure falls within ballpark estimates generated by NFA groups using aggregated data.

The ATF has tried to address the backlog with new funds multiple times, but never referred to it as specifically addressing “violent crime,” according to a review of budget proposals available on the Justice Department’s website.

For FY2018, ATF sought an additional $4 million specifically for “expediting NFA applications.” Last year, the agency reorganized the branch to improve performance by creating a dedicated body to focus entirely on consumer requests and another on law enforcement.

Gun control supporter Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who advocates for legislation to ban firearms dubbed “assault weapons,” called making NFA transfers a priority “unconscionable.” She suggested the money should be directed toward hiring more agents or the federal background check system.

But gun rights advocates disagree. “ATF is overwhelmed with NFA paperwork,” Lawrence Keane, senior vice president of the National Shooting Sports Foundation, told ABC News. He argued the backlog has been a “significant problem” and that ATF has been chronically understaffed.

The total number of NFA items circulating in the U.S. is north of 5.2 million, according to the most recent ATF data. But the majority of the items are silencers, since there’s a finite number of machine guns circulating in the U.S., which makes them both scarce and expensive. Federal law prohibits transferring ownership of machine guns registered after May 19, 1986, to civilians.

The processing time has increased alongside the number of applications filed and items manufactured each year. From 2006 to 2016, the number of NFA forms processed increased by 813 percent. And the number of NFA items increased 78 percent in 2016, jumping from 1.4 million to 2.5 million.

Yet, advocates on both sides of the issue have agreed on re-classifying bump stocks as machine guns after a gunman used the device to spray bullets into a crowd on the Las Vegas strip last October, killing 59 people and injuring some 850 others. Bump stocks mimic the performance of a machine gun — since the device allows users to repeatedly pull the trigger of a semi-auto rifle with little effort — the ATF ruled the item did not fit the legal definition of machine gun.

Earlier this month, the Justice Department, operating under the directives of President Trump, proposed regulations to re-define bump stock devices as machine guns. The president said during a meeting with lawmakers last month: “You put it into the machine gun category, which is what it is. It becomes essentially a machine gun. It’s going to be very hard to get them.”

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