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For years, the agency charged with enforcing the nation's gun laws has been languishing. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives has been without a permanent leader since the middle of the Bush administration.

And its budget has lagged behind that of other law enforcement agencies, as NPR's Brian Naylor reports.

BRIAN NAYLOR: ATF, as it's commonly known, has long been part of the nation's law enforcement. In the 1930s, Eliot Ness, who became part of American folklore in his prosecution of mobster Al Capone, was an agent for what became ATF.

(Soundbite of film)

Unidentified Man #1: Where is he?

Unidentified Man #2: They're getting paid to spill beer, Mr. Ness, not to interrupt private parties.

(Soundbite of laughter)

(Soundbite of gavel)

Unidentified Man #1: Answer the question, punk.

Unidentified Man #2: I told you, he ain't here.

NAYLOR: But lately the bureau has had a less glamorous profile, while the FBI, DEA and other government law enforcement agencies have grown, ATF has been stagnant.

James Kavanaugh recently retired after 33 years as an ATF agent.

Mr. JAMES KAVANAUGH (Retired ATF Agent): In 1972, there's 2,500 agents. 39 years later, there's 2,500 agents. No growth at all in 39 years.

NAYLOR: The ATF has been a political target for opponents of gun regulations for years. In Congress, pro-gun lawmakers have kept its budget virtually flat. And there's the leadership question. The ATF has not had a permanent director since 2006. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, co-chairman of mayors against illegal guns, says that has to change.

Mayor MICHAEL BLOOMBERG (New York City): We simply can't afford to have the ATF at less than full strength when so many gun murders are occurring every single day in all 50 states.

NAYLOR: President Bush's nominee to head the bureau was blocked by three Republican senators. President Obama didn't nominate a director until last November. His choice, Andrew Traver, a career ATF agent who's now in charge of the bureau Chicago office.

Early indications are it's going to be an uphill climb for Traver. The nation's biggest gun lobby, the NRA, calls Traver, quote, "deeply aligned with gun control advocates and anti-gun activities." We asked the NRA for an interview but they didn't respond to repeated requests. But speaking on an NRA sponsored radio program, the group's executive director, Chris Cox, made clear his opposition.

Mr. CHRIS COX (Executive Director, NRA): He's bad news when it comes to the Second Amendment. But, again, when you're looking at a president who put up Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan and surrounds himself with this other gaggle of anti-gun activists - and that's what this guy's been, an activist - it's really just par for the course.

NAYLOR: The NRA's objections to Traver, seem to be based at least, in part, on his appearance on a news story on Chicago's NBC affiliate about gang violence. In the clip he was shown dramatically firing an automatic weapon.

Mr. ANDREW TRAVER (ATF Agent): They see these things in movies, they see them on television, video games, it's, like, oh, let's get one of those. It gives them a lot of street cred. Pull the trigger and you can mow people down.

NAYLOR: The NRA says the story was misleading because automatic weapons are not commonly found on gang members.

The Senate has yet to hold a hearing on Traver. A judiciary committee aide says the panel's waiting for the administration to submit the necessary paperwork. Former ATF agent James Kavanaugh says the lack of a Senate-confirmed director with the backing of the president is disconcerting.

Mr. KAVANAUGH: The agency goes on because law enforcement people are can-do people and they're mission people. But, nevertheless, there's not an agency in the government that has to face that kind of a problem. Can you imagine a big city police force not having a chief for four and a half years?

NAYLOR: And while that might suit the gun lobby, gun control advocates hope the shootings in Tucson will spur the administration to push for Traver's confirmation.

Brian Naylor, NPR News, Washington.

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