WASHINGTON -- President Barack Obama's nomination of B. Todd Jones to head the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives on Wednesday is an effort to energize a depleted agency that has been denied leadership and resources by legislators aligned with the gun lobby, according to administration officials and former law enforcement officials.
The introduction of Jones during the unveiling of Obama's sweeping gun proposals at the White House signals a willingness to fight for a position that has languished in political limbo across two administrations. But questions remain about whether the nomination will be blocked by National Rifle Association allies in the Senate and, more broadly, whether the ATF has the institutional strength to lead the kind of crackdown on illegal gun trafficking that Obama desires even if Jones is confirmed.
The ATF has fewer agents than it did in 1970 and takes up to eight years between inspections of gun stores because of a lack of personnel. The agency also is prohibited from creating a searchable computer database for gun ownership records, according to current and former ATF officials.
Some of ATF's wounds are self-inflicted. In a scandal known as "Fast and Furious," senior agents lost track of 2,000 guns sold to suspected traffickers. Two weapons linked to one of the traffickers were found at the scene of the fatal shooting of a Border Patrol agent.
Jones, a federal prosecutor and former Marine, became the acting director of the ATF after congressional pressure connected to Fast and Furious led to the resignation of his predecessor, Kenneth Melson.
Jones has served as a part-time director of the ATF and continues to serve as the U.S. attorney in Minnesota. He declined to comment Wednesday on his nomination.
For the past six years, the Senate has not confirmed the nominees for ATF director by Obama or President George W. Bush. In the first case, individual Republican senators have placed a hold on the nomination. Obama's first nomination was never acted upon.
The lack of a director was simply the most obvious manifestation of an effort to make sure that the ATF lacked the staffing, equipment and powers to police the gun industry, according to gun-control advocates.
"An acting director is never really the director," said Malcolm Brady, a former assistant director at the agency. "You want someone who has the authority to lead, and the ability to work with both Congress and the NRA. It's a great first step. Mr. Jones has the dedication and authority to move the agency forward."
But recent history suggests that it is very difficult to take even that first step. According to the Center for American Progress, the NRA lobbied Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr., R-Wis., then chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, to insert a provision in the Patriot Act reauthorization in 2006 that changed the position of ATF director from one appointed by the administration to one confirmed by the Senate.
"All the other major law enforcement agencies had Senate-confirmed heads except the ATF," Sensenbrenner said in an e-mail Wednesday. He did not address a question about the NRA's role in the change. "The goal was to give ATF more stature and credibility, and it was an attempt to strengthen the agency after some high-profile failures."
The NRA did not respond to requests for comment.
No one has been confirmed as ATF director since. Bush's nominee, Michael J. Sullivan, a former Republican state legislator and U.S. attorney in Massachusetts, was blocked by three Republican senators. They said that Sullivan, who served as acting director of the ATF, had not done enough to end the agency's "overly burdensome regulatory policies" on gun owners.
The NRA said Obama's first nominee, Andrew Traver, who headed the ATF's Chicago field office, was "deeply aligned with gun-control advocates and anti-gun activities."
Brad Buckles, the ATF director from 1999 to 2004, said the agency is no bigger today than when he was its appointed head. He blamed the NRA lobby for persuading members of Congress to block money for expansion that would have increased regulation of firearms dealers and improved gun tracing.
"The NRA wasn't interested in having a stronger ATF," Buckles said.
Winnie Stachelberg, who recently co-wrote a report at the Center for American Progress on preventing gun violence, said the changed climate after the mass shooting at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn., may allow Jones to have the Senate vote denied his predecessors.
"There has been a fundamental change in this country, and that change happened 33 days ago," she said. "If someone should not be confirmed for the post for a specific reason, let's debate that and vote on that, but don't block the nomination."