Obama Gun Policy: Fear and Fallacy

There is no question that we need to devote far more resources to enforcing federal gun laws. But it is a transparent fallacy to argue that deficiencies in enforcing current laws justify inaction to strengthen those laws.
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Is the Obama Administration serious about enforcing our gun laws?

It is now beyond doubt that the Administration is determined to say as little as possible about the plague of gun violence that inflicts death and injury on 300 Americans every day. When forced to comment on proposals to strengthen our anemic federal gun laws, the President and his representatives typically fall back on the gun lobby's canard, "We don't need new gun laws. We need to enforce the laws on the books."

Last year, for example, when President Obama was asked by Bob Schieffer on Face the Nation whether he plans to ask Congress to enact an assault weapon ban to address the torrent of guns flowing from American gun dealers to Mexican drug cartels, the President replied, "I think the main thing we need is better enforcement."

There is no question that we need to devote far more resources to enforcing federal gun laws. But it is a transparent fallacy to argue that deficiencies in enforcing current laws justify inaction to strengthen those laws.

According to the "just enforce current laws" argument, we should, for instance, tolerate the "gun show loophole" in federal law that allows criminals to buy guns from private sellers at gun shows without background checks, because we can always hire more federal agents to track down the criminals after they get the guns. Doesn't it make more sense to require background checks to block gun sales to criminals in the first place?

There also now is reason to doubt the sincerity of the Obama Administration's asserted commitment to better enforcement. It is indefensible, for example, that the President has been in office for eighteen months without appointing a permanent Director for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, the federal agency responsible for enforcement of our nation's gun laws.

In June, Brady Center President Paul Helmke wrote to President Obama, urging him to nominate a Director for ATF. After the press began to notice the Administration's inaction, rumors of an impending appointment began to circulate, with Al Kamen of the Washington Post reporting yesterday that the Administration may be on the verge of nominating the current Special Agent in Charge of ATF's Chicago office. But the question remains: How could the Obama Administration allow such a vital position to be unfilled for so long?

Incredibly, ATF has not had a permanent Director since 2006. President George W. Bush at least sent a nominee to Congress, but a vote on his candidate, Michael Sullivan, was reportedly blocked by then-Senator Larry Craig (R-Idaho), an NRA Board Member who apparently took issue with ATF's treatment of gun dealers during Sullivan's term as Acting ATF Director. The Bureau has had a succession of Interim and Acting Directors, with the last Acting Director occupying that position so long that he exhausted the statutory time limit on his tenure.

As the Brady Center points out in its new report, Leadership Vacuum, the ATF vacancy is particularly conspicuous, since 83% of the appointments that require Senate approval have been confirmed or nominated since President Obama took office. The Administrator of the Federal Motor Carrier Administration has been nominated and confirmed, but no one has even been nominated for the job of running the agency responsible for fighting gun trafficking.

This is a serious matter. In the words of James Pasco, a former ATF Assistant Director, "I am absolutely confident that because of the lack of a confirmed director, crimes are being committed and innocent people are dying." How can the Administration continue to maintain it has a policy to fight gun violence by improving enforcement of current law, when it has been willing to allow the federal gun enforcement agency to remain leaderless? How can it say that it is "doing all that we can" -- as Secretary of State Clinton claimed -- to curb the arming of Mexican cartels with guns trafficked from American gun shops?

A headless ATF is but the latest symptom of a paralyzing disease -- the Obama Administration's fear of the gun lobby. The National Rifle Association long has dedicated itself to the ATF's destruction -- even stooping, during the Clinton Administration, to calling ATF agents "jack-booted government thugs." It is easy to imagine the express or implied threats being made by the gun lobby and its friends in Congress to oppose any nominee for Director who will aggressively pursue the corrupt gun dealers who aid and abet gun trafficking. As Washington Post columnist David Ignatius wrote about the Administration's ATF inaction, "it's the kind of situation that makes you wonder if good governance has taken a holiday."

The urgency of a strong ATF Director grows every day, as the gun lobby pushes its latest legislative abomination, a bill that would further weaken ATF's existing enforcement powers, that carries the Orwellian name "ATF Reform and Firearms Modernization Act." The bill (S.941/H.R. 2296) would make it virtually impossible for ATF to revoke the licenses of law-breaking gun dealers. If names attached to legislation had to pass a "truth-in-advertising" test, the bill would be called the "ATF Deform and Destruction Act."

It is bad enough to witness President Obama resorting to the "enforcement fallacy" to justify his failure to support strengthening our gun laws. It is beyond the pale that his Administration would be so fearful of the gun lobby that it would leave ATF without a leader and stand silently as the gun lobby pushes legislation to emasculate the agency for decades to come.

For more information, see Dennis Henigan's Lethal Logic: Exploding the Myths that Paralyze American Gun Policy (Potomac Books 2009)

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