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WASHINGTON — In late January, days before President Biden reiterated a vow to halt the sale of parts used to make deadly “ghost guns,” the federal official responsible for enacting that policy delivered a far more reassuring message to the gun industry.
The official, Marvin G. Richardson, the acting director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, told a gathering of weapons manufacturers that the rule banning online sales of untraceable components for homemade weapons — expected to have already been in place — would not be completed until June. It was his first announcement on the timeline.
This jarring split screen — a president demanding action on gun violence and an industry-friendly subordinate pumping the brakes — infuriated some Biden allies. Mr. Richardson’s leadership of A.T.F., they believe, reflected the White House’s waning focus on gun control after the defeat last year of Mr. Biden’s pick to run the bureau, David Chipman, who had vowed to overhaul an agency that has been without a permanent leader since 2015.
“A.T.F. needs a top-to-bottom overhaul,” said John Feinblatt, the president of Everytown for Gun Safety, the gun control group funded by former Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg of New York. “That starts with the administration making sure the agency has the resources and leadership it needs to regulate an industry that has consistently prioritized profits over public safety.”
Gun control has long been a centerpiece of Mr. Biden’s agenda, a point he underlined during his State of the Union address on Tuesday when he declared that his proposals to ban assault weapons and eliminate the restriction on lawsuits against gunmakers would “save lives.” But Senate Republicans are blocking him, forcing the White House to pursue limited executive actions through an underfunded agency systematically weakened by congressional Republicans and the gun lobby.
And increasingly, progressives see Mr. Richardson’s low-key leadership of A.T.F.’s policymaking functions as part of the problem.
Administration officials say Mr. Richardson, who took over last summer, is making the best of a thankless job and has spent much of his time focused on deploying agents to deal with gun violence. His leadership “has been critical” to combating the recent national rise in shootings, said a spokeswoman for the Justice Department, Dena Iverson.
In recent weeks, anti-gun groups have stepped up pressure on the White House and Attorney General Merrick B. Garland as the administration continues a protracted search for a new nominee to lead the bureau. A senior White House official with knowledge of the process said the administration had narrowed the list of potential nominees to a few candidates.
In addition to pushing for faster enforcement of the ghost gun rule, the anti-gun groups have urged Mr. Biden to create a special gun violence office in the West Wing comparable to the one he has established for climate policy.
But that proposal has been rejected by Susan Rice, the president’s domestic policy adviser, who believes her office is best equipped to enact a comprehensive, administration-wide strategy. She has told gun control activists, including Fred Guttenberg, whose daughter was killed in the school shooting in Parkland, Fla., in 2018, that there is no need to hang another “shingle” in the West Wing to deal with the problem.
“The White House has already taken some very important actions, and I respect the enormous amount of things they have to do,” said Mr. Guttenberg, who met with Ms. Rice in December. “But the sole purpose of establishing an office is not to make policy, it’s about sending a message that gun violence matters, that there is someone in the White House working 24/7 on this.”
Last week, a coalition of 43 groups sent a list of action items to Mr. Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris, urging them to move faster on an A.T.F. pick, create the new office and “use the authority” of the White House to inject a new sense of urgency into the issue. “The administration can, and must, do more,” said the groups, which included the gun control organizations Brady and Giffords.
That letter was prompted in part by Mr. Richardson’s appearance at the convention alongside Lawrence G. Keane, the general counsel for the National Shooting Sports Foundation, which hosted the event and is the gun industry’s main trade group.
Mr. Keane began the talk by praising Mr. Richardson’s leadership, adding that “the relationship between the industry and A.T.F. has really grown stronger.”
Mr. Keane has teamed with A.T.F. on several campaigns to limit illegal firearms purchases, and he has known Mr. Richardson for years. But he also helped lead the campaign that sank Mr. Chipman’s nomination, waging a scorched-earth effort to block a man he viewed as an existential threat to his booming industry.
At times, Mr. Keane has publicly questioned Mr. Biden’s age and mental capacity, and Mr. Chipman has accused him of endangering his family by reposting a photograph purporting to show Mr. Chipman, a former A.T.F. agent, standing in the ashes of Waco — even though he arrived after the bloody 1993 siege in Texas.
(Mr. Keane has said that reposting a misleading photo was an error, and that he quickly removed the image from social media; Mr. Richardson, by contrast, was present as a young agent during the confrontation between federal agents and members of the Branch Davidian cult.)
But Mr. Richardson, who has been at the A.T.F. for more than 30 years and is expected to retire in the next year, was not the only bureau official to attend the convention, known as the Shooting, Hunting, Outdoor Trade Show, or SHOT Show. The event typically attracts 55,000 attendees and raises $35 million for the National Shooting Sports Foundation by renting space to hundreds of vendors, including a handful of companies selling ghost gun components.
A total of 57 A.T.F. employees went this year, and eight of them were assigned to the security details of top bureau officials. On average, about 55 staff members have attended the three-day event each year since 2015, according to an agency tally of attendees provided by an administration official.
A.T.F. officials say it is necessary to deploy such a large contingent in the presence of those they regulate to answer technical questions about compliance with federal law and regulations. But critics of the bureau say the presence of so many A.T.F. employees is emblematic of the agency’s too-cozy relationship with the industry.
In an interview, Mr. Keane said he did not view Mr. Richardson’s attendance as an endorsement of his views. Instead, he said he saw it as a good-faith effort to coordinate enactment of the ghost gun regulation and a new electronic bookkeeping system.
He defended his previous comments about Mr. Biden, saying they were a reaction to the president’s threat, so far unfulfilled, to pass a law removing the gun industry’s immunity from civil lawsuits.
“My beef is not with Marvin, who is doing a decent, nonideological job,” Mr. Keane said.
Ms. Iverson, the Justice Department spokeswoman, said Mr. Richardson was simply reading from a White House budget office document when he cited the June deadline for the ghost gun rule, which had been delayed by the need to sift through more than a quarter of a million public comments. Mr. Richardson dedicated 30 A.T.F. staff members to process what was the largest-ever response to a firearms proposal, Ms. Iverson said.
But two White House officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to publicly discuss the matter, said Mr. Richardson had misspoken and that the rule would, in fact, be finished by early April. They said that another claim by Mr. Richardson, that enforcement of the regulation would begin 90 days after the rule was completed, was also off base, and that the gap would be closer to 60 days.
The ghost gun rule is moving faster than most federal regulations. But anti-violence groups and local officials in California, where ghost guns now account for 25 to 50 percent of weapons recovered at crime scenes, say that a delay of even a few weeks will allow manufacturers extra time to pump out untraceable components that can be used in crimes.
“This is a ticking bomb,” said T. Christian Heyne, the vice president for policy at Brady, which has pressured A.T.F. to move faster on the regulation.
“Ghost gun parts are being sold every day that this rule is not finalized, so time is critical,” he added. “Six months from now, the problem will, without question, be worse than it is right now.”
Mr. Biden made the same point in a speech last month to law enforcement officials in New York City, telling them the rule would be completed in the spring. Ghost guns are “as deadly as any other weapon out there,” he said.
White House officials say that the president is doing all that he can to address the crisis, given the refusal of Senate Republicans to consider restrictions on military-style firearms, red flag laws to keep mentally ill people from carrying guns and enhancing background checks.
But bureau officials said Mr. Richardson had tried his best to balance the bureau’s concurrent roles as a law enforcement agency that partners with local departments on gun cases and a regulatory body that licenses firearms dealers and regulates industry practices.
They also emphasized the tight, at times crippling, constraints the bureau must operate under: One federal law, for instance, prevents them from using electronic records to trace crime guns, so the work must be done using moldy paper purchase records stacked in boxes.
Even the agency’s harshest critics concede that its employees work under intolerable conditions and praise A.T.F.’s deployment of its investigative resources.
In the past two years, the bureau has stepped up efforts to break up weapons trafficking rings, creating a handful of local task forces that have opened more than 540 new investigations since last summer that have resulted in the seizure of more than 3,100 guns, according to a Justice Department estimate.
Local A.T.F. officials have been especially creative. John B. DeVito, the director of the agency’s office in New York, recently created a joint task force with the New York Police Department to address a huge spike in gun crime. To ensure closer cooperation, he took the highly unusual step of ordering his agents to work in the same Lower Manhattan office with the Police Department’s intelligence division.
“No one ever tried to do this before,” said John Miller, the department’s deputy commissioner for intelligence and counterterrorism. “But it was all his idea. It’s amazing what can be accomplished when people check their egos at the door.”
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