More gun victims: When will Congress get serious about the ATF?

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Another day in America, another gun atrocity. One day it's in Blair County, Pa., where a gunman killed three people and wounded three state troopers Dec. 21 before he was shot to death.

Then just before sunrise on Christmas Eve in Webster, N.Y., an ex-con set his house on fire, hoping to burn down the neighborhood, and then ambushed arriving firefighters, killing two and wounding two others.

The sniper, William Spengler, 62, is also believed to have killed his sister. His suicide note said he was going to "do what I like doing best, killing people." One of his three weapons was a semi-automatic Bushmaster rifle of the same make and caliber as a weapon used by the killer of 26 people at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn., on Dec. 14.

Another day in America, another round of arguments about what to do about gun carnage. Hoping to avoid the armed elephant in the room, some say the nation should address mental health issues. We should, but it will take time and research to learn how to spot the behaviors that will reliably identify those who are about to act out against innocent people.

Another often-repeated suggestion is that the country should enforce existing gun laws rather than pass new ones. A timely report by The New York Times shows how close to fiction that is. It focused on the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, the agency charged with enforcing federal gun laws. The ATF is despised by the gun lobby and as a result has been without a full-time director for six years.

President Barack Obama has called for action on a permanent director, and it should be among the first things the new Congress does. As for the lawmakers who fault the agency over the "Fast and Furious" scandal, they should ask themselves how much their lack of leadership played a part in the wayward scheme to track gang members using guns.

Paranoid opposition also keeps the ATF old-fashioned, which gun lovers like and everyone else should deplore. Instead of using a completely computerized system to track guns, ATF employees must often consult paper records. That's because the National Rifle Association and others oppose a national firearms registry of gun transactions because they fear a despotic government might confiscate guns.

The killers are serious. It is past time that those who don't want to limit guns, even in sensible ways, also become serious.

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