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  • Donald Trump Had One Piece of Debate Advice for Mitt Romney, and Romney Ignored It

    Donald Trump had some advice for Mitt Romney heading into the first 2012 presidential debate: It was time for the former Massachusetts governor to go birther.

    Trump's campaign now insists that Trump's birther crusade ended in 2011, after the president released his long-form birth certificate. Trump considered the shorter certificate of live birth that Obama released in 2008 a possible fraud. In reality, the release was only the beginning for Trump. He continued to fan speculation of the president's not-so-mysterious place of birth, suggesting that "Israeli science" had shown the certificate to be fake and announcing that he had sent a team of investigators to Hawaii to get to the bottom of it.

    As Romney reeled from super-PAC attacks on his record at Bain Capital and from his closed-door comments about the "47 percent," Trump believed certain secrets about Obama's past were the best bet to turn things around.

    Romney, unsurprisingly, ignored Trump's advice. But Trump offered the same advice in anticipation of their second debate:

    Trump was obsessed with the president's college records because he believed they would confirm that Obama was foreign-born. (He has suggested the president's real name was "Barry Soetoro," or sometimes "Barry Soweto," even though Soetoro was Obama's stepfather's name and Soweto is a famous township in South Africa.) "Obviously he wasn't born in this country or, if he was, he said he wasn't in order to receive financial aid and in order to have a clear and very easy path into a college or university," Trump explained to WorldNetDaily a few days before the 2012 election.

    Romney continued to ignore Trump's advice for the second and third debates. But tonight, on the heels of Trump's bizarre press conference on the issue and the Hillary Clinton campaign's repeated attacks on birtherism, Trump might finally get the chance to raise the issue during a presidential debate.

  • Here Are All the Sneaky Tricks Candidates Use to Dodge Debate Questions

    Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton will finally face-off in their first presidential debate tonight, in an event that's expected to draw a record-breaking 100 million viewers. Presidential debates, unlike those held during the primaries, are supposed to be, well, more presidential: there are specific rules governing how long candidates are supposed to speak and topics are set in advance.

    Tonight, we know that the candidates will be discussing the economy, national security and foreign policy, and more generally, "America's direction." But we also know that it's not just about where candidates stand on the issues, it's how they tackle these topics on air—and interact—that we'll be watching. It's likely they'll dodge difficult questions, hurl insults, and in some cases, change the subject entirely.

    This video from We The Voters dissects some of these tried-and-true debate tactics. Starring Josh Malina of The West Wing (and, more recently Scandal) and Richard Kind of Gotham, the parody breaks down why candidates like bringing up anecdotes (because you can't verify them), falling back on name calling, and redefining words (so they can subtly change the subject and assign blame to something else.) See if you can catch some of them tonight.

    Over the next few weeks, we'll be publishing more from We The Voters, a new digital, nonpartisan campaign to inform voters of key issues this election season. We The Voters has assembled a star-studded crew, including director Morgan Spurlock and actors and actresses such as Rosario Dawson, Tom Arnold, and Mario Cantone, to produce videos that break down the 2016 campaign in an approachable, entertaining way, so voters can get to the polls knowing exactly what's at stake. They'll be releasing 20 videos over the next few weeks. Stay tuned.

  • Why One Scientist Went Public With Her Sexual Harassment Story

    In the past few years, sexual harassment in the sciences has become an increasingly visible problem. Disturbing allegations about the Environmental Protection Agency, the National Park Service, and the former head of the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change have all made headlines. So have a number of cases involving prominent university professors.

    On the latest episode of the Inquiring Minds podcast, Kishore Hari talks to Sarah Ballard, an accomplished exoplanet researcher who was also a complainant in one of the most high-profile recent harassment controversies. Last year, Buzzfeed reported that Geoff Marcy, a renowned astronomer at the University of California-Berkeley, had faced sexual harassment accusations. A report produced by the university found that Marcy had "violated the relevant UC sexual harassment policies"; it cited allegations that he had inappropriately touched students. Initially, Marcy was placed on probation; he was instructed by the university to comply with its sexual harassment policies and to avoid physical contact with students (except to shake their hands).

    But the Buzzfeed story sparked a national outcry, and many began demanding a more severe punishment. Marcy posted an apology on his website, though he denies some of the allegations in the report and says that his actions didn't harm his students' professional lives. He ultimately retired under pressure from faculty at the university.

    On Inquiring Minds, Ballard depicts Marcy as a professor who praised her talent yet abused her trust. She first met him when she was an undergraduate student in one of his classes, but her excitement to work with one of the world's foremost experts on exoplanets soon took a dark turn. On one occasion, Marcy told Ballard a detailed story about his sexual history. On another occasion, she says, he attempted to massage her neck after driving her home.

    After that, Ballard agonized over whether to confront Marcy about his behavior, ultimately deciding to do so. As described in the Berkeley report, this prospect caused "great anxiety" for Ballard, "in part because she believed such a confrontation would effectively forfeit any opportunity of receiving a letter of recommendation" from Marcy. But it never came to that. Ballard says Marcy's behavior suddenly changed and the harassment stopped. She later found out that a graduate student had confronted Marcy about unwelcome behavior Marcy had allegedly exhibited toward a different student.

    Marcy didn't deny Ballard's allegations—though he does deny some of the other allegations in Berkeley's report. (According to the Berkeley report, he told the university investigator that he didn't recall touching Ballard in the car but that it was possible he did.) In an interview with Mother Jones, Marcy's attorney, Elizabeth Grossman, argued that Marcy's actions weren't serious enough to justify the backlash he's experienced. "There is not a single allegation of sexual assault [against Marcy]," said Grossman. "There is not a single allegation of soliciting sex, of requesting sex in exchange for academic favor. There is not a single suggestion of his interfering with anyone's ability to thrive on campus."

    Ballard, however, says she was deeply affected by her interactions with Marcy. "To have [Marcy] say, 'You are talented, you are full of promise'— that is so compelling," she explains. "And then to have all of the sudden the knowledge that…that message might not have been delivered in good faith: You feel like the rug has been pulled out under you. So does that mean that I'm not promising? Does that mean that all of it was a lie?…It was profoundly rattling to my nascent sense of self as an astronomer, as a scientist."

    Years later, when Ballard heard that allegations against Marcy were going to become public, she made the decision to come forward and identify herself as one of the victims. She hopes that by doing so, she'll make things easier for other women.

    "There was one principle which helped me to unravel the tangled knot of my feelings that I could always return to…and that was you have to be the woman you needed then," says Ballard. "You couldn't protect yourself then, but you can protect younger you today, and you can protect women who are 20 today."

    Ballard went on to receive a Ph.D. in astronomy and astrophysics from Harvard (she notes that Marcy wrote a recommendation letter that helped her get into the prestigious university). She now researches exoplanets at MIT. But across the country, many other women have left the sciences. That's partly because of widespread sexual harassment, argues Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.). Indeed, a 2014 study found that roughly two-thirds of female scientists surveyed said they had experienced harassment while doing field research.

    In January, Speier gave a speech on the floor of the US House of Representatives recounting the allegations against Timothy Slater, who taught astronomy at the University of Arizona and is now a professor at the University of Wyoming. Speier had obtained the results of a confidential 2005 investigation conducted by the University of Arizona. "Dr. Slater himself admitted that he gave an employee a vegetable-shaped vibrator and that he frequently commented to his employees and students about the appearance of women," said Speier on the House floor. "My staff spoke with one female grad student who was required to attend a strip club in order to discuss her academic work with Dr. Slater. The woman has since left the field of astronomy." After reading the report, "I was physically sickened," Speier says on Inquiring Minds.

    Slater declined to answer specific questions from Mother Jones about the allegations, though he did provide a letter his lawyers had sent to the University of Arizona threatening to sue the university for defamation and breach of privacy over the release of the report. In the letter, Slater's attorneys said the university's report "contains numerous false and misleading allegations, which Rep. Speier and the media has reported as fact." Specifically, the attorneys state that Slater "never gave a vibrator" to "any graduate student, ever" and that Slater "denies that he ever pressured anyone to go to the strip club or that anyone ever complained about going to strip club."

    Speier proposes one solution to the problem of sexual harassment in the sciences. The federal government has the power under Title IX to fight harassment, she notes. Because so many universities, even private ones, rely on federal dollars, they could lose federal funding in the form of grants or student loans if they violate the law. Last week, she introduced legislation requiring universities to inform federal grant-making institutions when they determine a professor has engaged in sexual harassment.

    Speier isn't optimistic that the bill will pass in the current Congress, but she wants harassment victims to know they have an advocate on Capitol Hill. Her message to them? "They've been heard."

    Inquiring Minds is a podcast hosted by neuroscientist and musician Indre Viskontas and Kishore Hari, the director of the Bay Area Science Festival. To catch future shows right when they are released, subscribe to Inquiring Minds via iTunes or RSS. You can follow the show on Twitter at @inquiringshow and like us on Facebook.

  • Democrats Are Freaking Out. But They've Been Here Before.

    The polls are tightening and the freak-out is beginning. With hours to go before the first presidential debate, FiveThirtyEight's polls-plus forecast gives former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton just a 53.4 percent chance of winning the election. It's the closest the race has been since the elections site unveiled its model in June. The "bedwetting cometh," tweeted New York Times political reporter Jonathan Martin.

    But Democrats have been here before. In 2012, President Barack Obama held a modest but consistent lead over Republican nominee Mitt Romney heading into the first debate, only to uncharacteristically collapse. Within a few days, the lead had evaporated—according to FiveThirtyEight, Obama's chances went from 86.1 percent to 61.1 percent, the steepest drop of the campaign—and his supporters started to lose it. No one captured this liberal angst better then Andrew Sullivan, then of the Daily Beast, who had championed Obama in 2008 and joyfully called him "the first gay president" in a Newsweek cover story.

    Following Obama's first debate with Romney, Sullivan was inconsolable:

    Maybe if Romney can turn this whole campaign around in 90 minutes, Obama can now do the same. But I doubt it. A sitting president does not recover from being obliterated on substance, style and likability in the first debate and get much of a chance to come back. He has, at a critical moment, deeply depressed his base and his supporters and independents are flocking to Romney in droves.

    I've never seen a candidate self-destruct for no external reason this late in a campaign before. Gore was better in his first debate—and he threw a solid lead into the trash that night. Even Bush was better in 2004 than Obama last week. Even Reagan's meandering mess in 1984 was better—and he had approaching Alzheimer's to blame.

    I'm trying to see a silver lining. But when a president self-immolates on live TV, and his opponent shines with lies and smiles, and a record number of people watch, it's hard to see how a president and his party recover. I'm not giving up. If the lies and propaganda of the last four years work even after Obama had managed to fight back solidly against them to get a clear and solid lead in critical states, then reality-based government is over in this country again. We're back to Bush-Cheney, but more extreme. We have to find a way to avoid that. Much, much more than Obama's vanity is at stake.

    A week later, after the vice presidential debate had passed, Sullivan was even further gone. "Obama threw it all back in his supporters' faces, reacting to their enthusiasm and record donations with a performance so execrable, so lazy, so feckless, and so vain it was almost a dare not to vote for him," he wrote. And then Obama rebounded at the next two debates and won 332 electoral votes.

    The race heading into the first debate tonight is closer than it was heading into the first presidential debate in 2012. If the election were held today, there's a virtually even chance that Donald Trump would win. But Clinton backers anxiously hitting refresh on FiveThirtyEight and consulting their astrologers would do well to reread Sullivan's lament. It's fine to panic, but a 7-point polling swing is nothing a few good debates can't reverse.

  • What the Candidates Might Say Tonight About the World?s Most Important Issue
    clinton trump ad
    People pause near a bus adorned with large photos of candidates Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump before the first presidential debate. Mary Altaffer/AP

    This story was originally published by Grist and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

    Climate change is a grave threat to our future, but it probably won't come up at Monday's presidential debate. Topics for the event include "Securing America," and although you'd think issues of national security might involve climate change (the military certainly does), if history is any indication, it likely won't get mentioned at all.

    But if it does get the attention it deserves, here's where Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton stand:

    Dirty energy: Clinton supports some natural gas extraction on public lands, is against offshore drilling in the Arctic and the Atlantic, and has pledged $30 billion to provide suffering coal communities with health care, education, and job retraining as we move away from coal as a source of energy.

    Trump has promised to boost coal production, ease environmental regulations, open federal lands to oil and gas extraction, and increase permits for oil pipelines. He also is considering appointing an oil executive to head the Department of Interior and a fracking mogul to lead the Department of Energy.

    Clean energy: Clinton has said she would install more than half a billion solar panels in the United States by the end of her first term, and that under her presidency, we will generate enough clean energy to power every home in America by 2027.

    Trump has said wind power is a great killer of birds (it's not) and that solar is too expensive to be a viable source of energy, despite the fact that the cost of solar has now reached record lows—and with proper government investment, it would get even cheaper. Trump also objects to Obama's signature environmental legislation, the Clean Power Plan, as well as the Paris Climate Accord, which he says he would cancel.

    Environmental justice: After a debate in Flint, Michigan, in April, Clinton said she would require federal agencies to devise plans to deal with lead poisoning and other environmental justice issues, and she pledged to clean up more than 450,000 polluted sites around the United States.

    Trump, on the other hand, mocked the Democratic National Committee for including climate justice in the party's platform, and has previously vowed to dismantle the Environmental Protection Agency—or, as he calls it, "the Department of Environmental"—although he's recently backtracked on that particular idea.

    Fossil fuel donations: While Republican presidential candidates can usually count on generous support from the fossil fuel industry, this year is the exception. Between both individual and corporation donations, Clinton has taken nearly twice as much from Big Oil as Trump, and some oil execs may even vote for her. Looks like we can add this to the list of things the great race of 2016 has upended.

    Third and fourth party candidates Jill Stein and Gary Johnson won't be at the debate Monday night, which is too bad, because they tend to have the most interesting answers on climate change…and everything else.

  • Here Are the Contents of Governor Paul LePage's Infamous Binder of Accused Drug Traffickers

    Last month, Maine Gov. Paul LePage came under fire for claiming 90 percent of the state's out-of-state drug dealers are either black or Latino—an assertion the Republican governor said he could support with a 148-page binder he kept that cataloged mugshots and police reports for the alleged drug dealers. The remarks were widely condemned as racist, and contributed to mounting calls from both sides of the political aisle for LePage to step down from office.

    On Monday, after much pressure, the contents of the embattled governor's binder were finally released to the public. A cursory look at the material appears to paint a different picture from the one LePage previously described publicly.

    After making the binder public, the governor's office said it would make no further comment on its contents. The release comes just weeks after LePage left an expletive-laden voicemail on a state representative's phone denying that he is a racist.


  • John Oliver Tears Into Donald Trump's Scandals: "Ethically Compromised to an Almost Unprecedented Degree.?

    Political scandals, whether focused on Hillary Clinton's email use or Donald Trump's shady business dealings, have emerged as one of the most popular talking points of the 2016 presidential election. But as John Oliver explained on the latest "Last Week Tonight," when you break down all the alleged scandals plaguing both candidates, it's overwhelmingly clear that there is no contest: Trump is "unethically compromised to an almost unprecedented degree."

    "This campaign has been dominated by scandals, but it is dangerous to think that there is an equal number on both sides," Oliver said. "You can be irritated by some of Hillary's—that is understandable—but you should then be fucking outraged by Trump's."

    It's an important and timely message that comes ahead of tonight's blockbuster presidential debate. Watch the HBO host stack up all the scandals, in impressive detail, above.

  • Dex Romweber's Raucous Rockabilly

    Dex Romweber

    Courtesy of Bloodshot Records

    For nearly three decades, the irrepressible Dex Romweber has been an intrepid explorer of American song styles, whether recording under his own name, or as the leader of Flat Duo Jets (which influenced Jack White's White Stripes, among others). Titled after his North Carolina hometown, the engaging Carrboro showcases our hero's versatility in playful instrumentals and songs that give full play to his big, booming voice. With typical vigor, Romweber ranges from demented surf music ("Nightide") and his signature raucous rockabilly ("Knock Knock (Who's That Knockin' on My Coffin Lid Door?)") to a touching performance of one sentimental standard (Charlie Chaplin's "Smile") and the reinvention of another as spooky kitsch ("My Funny Valentine"). The constant in this colorful kaleidoscope of sounds is his genuine enthusiasm, regardless of setting—one listen to Carrboro and you’ll be hooked for sure.

  • The Trump Files: The Shady Way Fred Trump Tried to Save His Son's Casino

    Until the election, we're bringing you "The Trump Files," a daily dose of telling episodes, strange but true stories, or curious scenes from the life of GOP nominee Donald Trump.

    Donald Trump's career was built on help from his father, Fred, whether it was the years Trump spent managing his dad's apartment building or the political connections and multimillion-dollar loan guarantee that made cash-strapped Donald's first deals possible. So it's no surprise that Fred tried to bail his son out of trouble when Donald's Trump Castle casino in Atlantic City, New Jersey, was about to miss an interest payment in December 1990.

    By then, Trump had already defaulted on the debt from his Taj Mahal casino. If Fred simply wrote Donald a check, the money would be used to pay off that debt. So, as the Washington Post's Michael Kranish and Marc Fisher describe in their new book, Trump Revealed, the elder Trump sent a lawyer to the Trump Castle to sneak money straight into the ailing casino's coffers.

    The lawyer, Howard Snyder, approached the casino cage and handed over a certified check for $3.35 million, drawn on Fred's account. Snyder then walked over to a blackjack table, where a dealer paid out the entire amount in 670 gray $5,000 chips. The next day, the bank wired another $150,000 into Fred's account at the Castle. Once again, Snyder arrived at the casino and collected the full amount in 30 more chips.

    That let Trump use the de facto loan in whatever way he needed. "Sure enough, the Castle made its bond payment the day Fred's lawyer bought the first batch of chips," Kranish and Fisher wrote. The tactic also had a nice financial benefit. "Not only did he avoid default on the bonds—and the risk of losing control of Trump Castle as a result—but patrons who hold gaming chips normally are not paid interest," wrote the Philadelphia Inquirer at the time.

    New Jersey's Casino Control Commission investigated the chip purchase the following year and said it was an illegal loan that broke the state's rules about casinos receiving cash from approved financial sources. The Inquirer wrote that a casino lawyer told the paper that "Fred Trump is ineligible for licensing, and Trump Castle should be required to return the money, a move that would almost certainly force it into bankruptcy court." In the end, the casino kept the money and the commission fined the casino the relatively small amount of $65,000. But it didn't save Trump. A year later, the Trump Castle went into bankruptcy, and Donald gave up half the casino to his creditors.

    Read the rest of "The Trump Files":

  • Outgunned and Outmanned

    Two agents with suits and trim haircuts lean against a cubicle wall in the cavernous red-brick building that houses the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives' National Tracing Center in Martinsburg, West Virginia. They're laughing about one of the gun lobby's favorite myths: the notion that the government has a data­base with the names of every gun owner in America, and that one day, maybe very soon, it will sweep across the country to confiscate everyone's weapons.

    "We always crack up when they're like, 'You're coming to take our guns,'" says Corey Ray with an eye roll. "Look, we don't have the people." Ray, an ATF spokesman, reels off some facts: More than 10 million guns are made in the United States every year, and another 5 million are imported. That's on top of the estimated 350 million already in Americans' hands. Then consider that there are only 2,600 ATF special agents, and it's not hard to see why gun grabbing isn't just a political fantasy, but a mathematical impossibility. "Even if we were like, 'Yeah, we're coming to take your guns,'" Ray says, "30 years from now you might get a knock on your door."

    The ATF has a hard enough time doing the job it's actually set up to do. By design, it's an analog agency in a digital world. The bureau currently gets 2 million new records a month, documents that line the hallways and are stacked head-high in offices throughout the tracing center. The overflow extends to the parking lot, where on the day I visited there were 13 shipping containers crammed with paperwork. Much of it comes from gun dealers that have gone out of business and are required to send their sales records to the ATF. They come in on microfilm, on DVDs, in encrypted files. Some arrive burned, soaked, or on tracing paper. "It makes you wonder if this was done on purpose," says Ray, pointing to a pile of partly shredded documents.

    About 370,000 times a year, law enforcement agencies ask the ATF to help track down the origins of a gun that's been trafficked or used in a crime. If the ATF has a gun's serial number—and not all numbers are unique—it will try to track the gun from its manufacturer or importer to its dealer, who must turn over its sales record. In high-profile cases, the ATF can pull off a trace in 24 hours. But the process can be absurd. The 1986 Firearm Owners' Protection Act, passed with the backing of the National Rifle Association, outlaws the creation of a national gun registry. As a result, any documents the ATF scans must be stored as static images that cannot be searched digitally. I watched tracers sitting on the floor, thumbing through pages spread out on the carpet. "It's a fundamentally manual process," says Neil Troppman, the tracing center's program manager. "They may have to end up looking into 18 months' worth of records, page by page."

    "I was watching one of the acronym shows, NCIS or CSI or one of those, and there's a body on the ground and a gun in the bushes," Ray recounts. "The detective runs up to it, pulls out his iPhone, and takes a picture of the gun, and it instantly pops up on a screen who bought the gun, where he lives, what his criminal history is. Yeah, that's exactly how it works. 'Go get the microfilm! We gotta get this guy cuffed!' Six hours later—zzzzzzzzz."

    The agency estimates that about 50,000 firearms are illegally smuggled across state lines every year, and these weapons—overwhelmingly handguns—fuel everyday gun crime. Ninety percent of the guns used in crimes in New York City, including the last seven murders of police officers, came from outside the state. In Chicago, it's about 60 percent; in Maryland, it's nearly half.

    In the late '90s, the ATF published reports that identified the guns most commonly recovered at crime scenes. Shooting victims, their families, and cities used this data to sue gun manufacturers and dealers. So the gun industry went to Congress. In 2003, Rep. Todd Tiahrt (R-Kan.) introduced a series of riders to federal spending bills. The Tiahrt Amendments, versions of which have passed every year since, prohibit the ATF from publicly releasing detailed gun trace data and limit its ability to share this data with other law enforcement agencies. "I wanted to make sure I was fulfilling the needs of my friends who are firearms dealers," Tiahrt said. NRA officials, he added, "were helpful in making sure I had my bases covered."

    Now the ATF is only allowed to provide specific trace information when a local law enforcement agency asks for it, and only for that particular jurisdiction. "So Baltimore city can't call us and say, 'What is Baltimore County doing?' Or 'What is Maryland State Police doing?' We can only tell them about Baltimore city," Troppman explains.

    The ATF's gun-grabbing authority is limited to illegal weapons, some of which wind up in its 20,000-weapon reference collection basking beneath fluorescent lights in a separate wing of the tracing center. Handguns, arranged by make, caliber, and model, fill row after row of drawers. There's an avenue of AR-15s and AK-47s. A gold-plated Kalashnikov that once belonged to Saddam Hussein is displayed behind glass. "The gang violence, they typically use cheaper guns," says Michael Powell, a lanky guy who's one of the ATF's technical firearms specialists. Powell can't tell me which brands are the most commonly trafficked or used in violent crimes; the ATF is barred from sharing that information.

    The majority of weapons used in crimes come from a tiny percentage of the nation's gun dealers. But the ATF's ability to crack down on them is also constrained by the Tiahrt Amendments. The bureau is forbidden from requiring gun dealers to conduct inventory checks, something it had proposed after an audit revealed that nearly half the dealers it reviewed couldn't account for all their weapons. Even though false or improper paperwork can be a sign of illegal gun sales, recordkeeping violations are usually misdemeanors. And revoking dealers' licenses or charging them with illegal sales is all but impossible. "A slam-dunk case is going to involve sending in undercover agents or criminal informants to go in and prove on camera that the dealer is somehow willingly participating in some sort of criminal activity," Troppman says. Those investigations require resources the ATF doesn't typically have. Even routine checks on dealers and other federal firearms licensees (FFLs) are rare. "We only inspect about 5 percent of FFLs annually," says Troppman. "We've got 600 inspectors for 140,000 FFLs."

    Meanwhile, the NRA wages a perennial fight to keep the ATF's funding at a minimum and prevent it from merging with a more powerful agency, like the FBI. In 2006, the pro-gun group lobbied for an amendment to the Patriot Act that made the ATF's director subject to Senate confirmation. Since then, the ATF has only had one permanent director, who served for less than two years. Todd Rathner, a Second Amendment lobbyist, says it's "twisting it" to suggest the NRA has blocked ATF nominees simply for obstruction's sake. "Look, when [former NRA President] Charlton Heston was alive, if he were nominated to be the director of the ATF, we'd be fine with him being the director," he says.

    In January, President Barack Obama proposed adding 200 new agents to the ATF's shrinking, aging workforce. But Congress promptly cut those funds from the ATF's budget. And while Democrats in Washington are pushing for a new round of gun safety measures, no one is calling for the ATF to be reenergized. Chelsea Parsons, the vice president of guns and crime policy at the Center for American Progress, says, "The political challenge of ATF is so overwhelming that they kind of don't know where to start."

    "The NRA wants us right where we're at," says the ATF's Troppman. "They have the ear of a big portion of Congress, so they can manipulate what happens. It's, 'You can come this close, but if you come any closer, we're going to make things difficult for you.'"

    But the bureau's employees say they do what they can. "ATF prides itself on doing more with less," says David Cheplak, a field agent who helped break up a trafficking ring that ran hundreds of guns from Tennessee to Baltimore in 2015. "You have to be resourceful. There's a lot of changes that could be made that would make our jobs easier, but I don't see those happening in the immediate or faraway future." Troppman says simply, "We do not control our own destiny."