June 25, 2020


For today’s Critical Issues Report, PERF Executive Director Chuck Wexler interviewed Regina Lombardo, Acting Director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, and ATF Assistant Director Thomas Chittum.

Topics included ATF’s work in investigating arsons committed during George Floyd protests in many cities, gun store burglaries, crime trends, and spikes in gun sales during the COVID-19 crisis.


ATF Acting Director Regina Lombardo                   ATF Assistant Director Thomas Chittum



Chuck Wexler: How has ATF supported local police during the recent civil unrest?

Acting Director Regina Lombardo:  Our role is typically to support investigations, particularly with our explosives and arson experts.

As soon as Minneapolis happened, we worked to send out our national response team that handles fire investigations. They’re the people who can look into the origin of a fire and figure out who started it. It was difficult because there was still so much unrest happening in both Minneapolis and Saint Paul, so we couldn’t get in there quickly. But the local police departments were able to help protect us, so we were able to get in and investigate.

The Attorney General also asked federal agencies to help in D.C., and that’s when we were asked to provide our Special Response Team.  We had an intelligence role. Agents from around the country worked with Secret Service out on the streets to gather intelligence at incidents like the arson at the St. John’s Episcopal Church near Lafayette Square and the District 4 police station, which was burned. There were about seven fires in Washington, D.C.

Our role evolved from intelligence to arrest teams, when we saw activities happening out in the street.

Overall, across the whole country, we had just under 900 arsons over the last several weeks. That includes many in Chicago, Saint Paul, Minneapolis, and Cleveland. We don’t typically see many arsons in some of those cities.

Investigating those arsons is our primary role. We also had federally licensed firearms dealers that were burglarized around the country. We were trying to get the message out to dealers that there was civil unrest in their area, so they should make sure their firearms are secure.

Assistant Director Thomas Chittum:  Very early on, while the situation was still unstable, we deployed some of our subject matter experts to those areas to triage based on solvability factors – whether or not we thought there would be surveillance video, the nature of the targets, the extent of the damage.

Of the just under 900 fires we documented, we processed about 200 fire scenes. Nationwide, we’ve made over 80 arrests. They’re not all for arson, but they’re all originating from the civil unrest. The majority of them involve fire affecting interstate commerce, use or possession of an incendiary device or a Molotov cocktail, etc.

Wexler: Did you see any evidence that these arsons were coordinated across multiple cities?

Director Lombardo:  Big picture, from what I see overall, the arrests we have made have been of people from those same areas, either the same state or the same region. There was one case of an arrest in Chicago for a fire in Minneapolis, so we did have some of that. Not a lot, but we did have some.

Asst. Director Chittum: I think that’s right. In the majority of cases, what we saw was local opportunists. I believe there were a couple cases of people who had traveled to engage in riots, but in most cases they were local.

We’ve been asked about motivating ideology. ATF has a long experience with the delicate nature of those things, and we have always said that we focus not on ideology but on actions. So we haven’t really delved into motivation.

Wexler:  What were the targets of these fires?

Asst. Director Chittum:  There was a post office, a number of police facilities, and a lot of commercial businesses. And police facilities include vehicles. We made a number of arrests for people burning police cars as well.



Wexler:   What gun-related trends have you seen?

Director Lombardo:   Right now we have 91 federal firearms licensees (FFLs) that were burglarized, primarily during that week of civil unrest. The total loss is approximately 1,000 weapons.

Looking at gun sales, I think we had the highest number of NICS (National Instant Criminal Background Check System) checks, meaning people who go in and want to purchase weapons, in a one-month period. It was also the highest number of delayed denials.

There’s an average of about 26 million NICS checks per year. Of that, there are about 100,000 denials per year. Delayed denials are done by ATF. We go out and get the firearm when that person should not have been sold that weapon because the check came back after the three-day period. Last year we had about 4,600 of those. Just in the month of March we had the highest number of NICS checks in a month.

Wexler:   Why are gun sales increasing?

Director Lombardo:   We typically see spikes in gun sales during unrest or times of turbulence in the country.

And there’s always an increase in December, because people give guns as gifts. Usually there are also changes in different administrations, depending on the political climate of the country.

Asst. Director Chittum:   We saw considerable spikes at the outset of the COVID epidemic, but it had begun leveling off. Then when the unrest occurred, it spiked again.

We did see significantly higher numbers than we’ve seen in many, many years, and maybe ever.



Wexler:   What gun crime trends are you seeing nationally?

Director Lombardo:  I’m beyond surprised by the cases that ATF has worked and is working across the country.

I have not seen this volume of work in the history of our organization, and I’ve been on for almost 30 years.

We have been asked by police departments around the country for additional resources and to put our agents right in police departments to try to work cases using shell casings to make connections.

Asst. Director Chittum:  In America, there are roughly 400 million guns in the hands of about 100 million people, but we know a relatively small portion of those people will use a relatively small portion of those guns to commit violent crime. Increasingly technology allows us to focus with precision on the people who are using those firearms and the sources of those crime guns. That’s basically ATF’s two-pronged approach.

So in these times of limited or strained resources, we think it’s more important to embrace the concept of crime gun intelligence and the technology tools that go into it. We can be more precise in identifying the shooters who terrorize neighborhoods and the traffickers who arm those people.

Wexler:  Are you seeing a significant uptick in gun crime across the country?

Asst. Director Chittum:  That’s hard to measure. We have seen significant increases in submissions to our NIBIN database. We see year-over-year increases in firearms tracing.

Wexler:   Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Director Lombardo:   We’re solving crime differently than we ever have in the past. Arsons are typically very circumstantial, but now we’re using phones, geofencing, and new technologies to make arrests. I think that’s been the biggest game-changer for us.

This has also allowed us to pull our executive team together to look at our policies and practices. I believe in my heart that ATF has the policies established for de-escalation of force, and I want us to take a look at our own house and make sure that the policies and practices are aligned. We’re excited about getting in there and making sure that our training, policies, and practices are working.



Wexler:   Former Director Tom Brandon adopted many of PERF’s use-of-force recommendations, correct?

Director Lombardo:   That’s correct. Director Brandon made sure we had the whole guardian/warrior conversation as an organization. He took the recommendations and was a big believer in that. Tom Chittum actually wrote the use-of-force policy and developed a training. We pulled that out, reviewed it again, and made sure that all of our special response teams were following it.

Asst. Director Chittum:   ATF has not gotten good by embracing the status quo, so we’re constantly reassessing. As for de-escalation and incorporating some of PERF’s philosophy into our policies, it’s different for us because we don’t have the same routine patrol functions that police departments do. We took ICAT and de-escalation programs from some police departments, but we had to adapt them to ATF’s mission, which is focused on serious violent criminals, so de-escalation is a little bit different.

One of our agents was shot last week serving a search warrant. The agent showed remarkable restraint and returned no fire. We ended up maintaining our composure and talking the suspect out of the house.

We think that the philosophy and the training have gone a long way toward getting us to where we are today.

Wexler:   How is the agent?

Asst. Director Chittum:  He is good. He took a round through-and-through in the shoulder. He had some infection over the weekend, but he’s doing well.

It’s a scary moment for us. I tell people that ATF could stand for “America’s Toughest Feds.” Our folks really aren’t afraid to get out there and do their jobs.

Wexler:  Thanks very much, Director Lombardo and Assistant Director Chittum, for making time for us.  I know how busy you are.


The PERF Critical Issues Report is part of the Critical Issues in Policing project, supported by the Motorola Solutions Foundation.


PERF also is grateful to the Howard G. Buffett Foundation for supporting this work.

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