Consider the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. Relative to the monstrous monolith that is the federal government, the $1.8b per annum ATF is fairly small fry. Even if Congress grants the President’s request to swell its budget with some 200 more full-time agents, the ATF will remain the small but powerful bane of the gun enthusiast’s existence. Take the process mandated under the National Firearm Act that Americans must use to register certain types of firearms and firearm accessories before taking ownership. It SUUUUUCCCKKKKKSSSSSSS . . .
Something as simple as registering a lower receiver as a short-barreled rifle can take up to four months (if you’re lucky). According to the graph from NFA Tracker above, it’s been that way for roughly eight months. For the better part of the last year, if you submitted $200 and a bunch of paperwork to the ATF electronically, it would take at least a month or more before you got your permission slip to do something so egregious as put a 14.5″ barrel without a pinned muzzle device on the lower receiver of your AR 15. The horror.
Given that I consider the NFA branch of the ATF to be the only one that actually runs like a business – as evidenced by the fact that I gave them money and they gave me a good or service in return – I thought it might be fun to compare them to Home Depot.
The reason that I chose Home Depot: they also offer a similar “Buy Online, Pick Up In Store” service. I go online and give Home Depot some amount of money. Later that day, usually within two hours or so, I pick up my items. Rarely does this process fail me. And when it does, I lose, at most, a few hours beyond the two I planned on. And my HD seems to be pretty good at resolving customer concerns when the process doesn’t work so well.
According to their website, the NFA branch processed 1,383,677 firearms last year. A sizable portion of those are surely double-counted; a manufacturer has to get them into the ATF’s NFA registry, transfer them to a dealer, and then a dealer has to transfer them to you.
The more relevant stat: 236,290. That’s the number of NFA forms the ATF processed in 2014. Assuming that each one of those is a Form 1 or Form 4 at $200 per form, that represents $47,258,000 in taxes collected. Truth be told, the number is quite a bit less given that some of them are likely forms that aren’t Form 1 or Form 4. Furthermore, it is very likely that some of them are forms where the applicant is rejected. But could we call it $30 million and feel comfortable? Sure!
I had a hell of a time figuring out how many ATF employees work in the NFA department producing that revenue stream. The ATF’s 2015 annual budget was $1,201,004,000, spread out among 4,803 employees. That’s a rather impressive $245,471 per employee. In case you’re curious, Home Depot’s annual cost per employee is a hair under $196K. After about ten seconds of thought, I also realized that the NFA branch is probably the only branch of the ATF that’s actually driving revenue. Everything else is a cost center. A big one.
The ATF is pretty decent at publishing the top line numbers, specifically around number of employees and entire budget. I plugged that data into Excel with a normalized line that you can see in green. The red line corresponds to the actual cost per employee. The green line corresponds to the cost of an employee in 2002 adjusted for inflation throughout the years.
The good news is that the two lines haven’t strayed too radically; the cost of the ATF on a per employee basis hasn’t grown significantly. I won’t even bother to show revenue per employee but imagine a small stack of peanuts if you need a visual.
What is concerning — strictly from a business operations standpoint – – is that the ATF hasn’t doubled down on the NFA branch. Which goes back to that whole motivation thing. Competition in markets. You know the drill.
So does Home Depot. They’re well aware that Lowe’s offers a very similar buy online, pick-up in store service. If I get too frustrated, I’ll likely take my money elsewhere. This will reduce their revenue per employee ever so slightly. But if enough people do it, it will make a big difference. Home Depot does not also have the luxury of an armed staff backed by a court system that can “motivate” me into using their products. So they have to, you know, earn it.
I don’t have anything against the people working the NFA branch of the ATF specifically. In my limited interactions, I’ve found them to be polite and professional. These are not the people responsible for Brian Terry’s death.
That said, they work for an organization that either a) doesn’t understand how business works or b) doesn’t care. Beyond a congressional mandate that all paperwork must be signed off on within 30 days (shall issue), there’s zero motivation for the ATF to do anything but keep the wait times under a year — as that seems to be the threshold when the proletariat starts to really make some noise.
In closing, imagine a scenario where you give Home Depot several hundred dollars for an item and then four months later they tell you that you can pick up your item. They’d be out of business within a few weeks. As the ATF has no competition, and all the funds from the NFA branch roll up to the general fund, short of a shall-issue congressional mandate, these sorts of shenanigans aren’t likely to change. Call your Congresscritter anyway.