How The NRA Hinders The ATF Director Confirmation Process

››› ››› TIMOTHY JOHNSON

The agency responsible for the enforcement of federal gun laws, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), has not had a permanent director since 2006 largely due to obstruction from the National Rifle Association and its allies in Congress. Today, a Senate hearing will consider President Obama's nomination of current acting ATF Director B. Todd Jones for permanent director.

The Senate Judiciary Committee To Hold Hearing On B. Todd Jones' Nomination 

The Senate Judiciary Committee Will Hold A June 11 Hearing On President Obama's Nomination Of U.S. Attorney B. Todd Jones For ATF Director. [Senate Judiciary Committee, accessed 6/7/13]

Jones Is Acting ATF Director And Received Senate Confirmations For U.S. Attorney Positions In The Clinton And Obama Administrations. From a January 16 Huffington Post article that detailed how Jones was brought on as acting director after the ATF's failed gun trafficking sting, Operation Fast and Furious:

B. Todd Jones, the man President Barack Obama wants to be the first permanent director the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) has had since 2006, is the same man the administration trusted to clean up the beleaguered agency after the "Fast and Furious" scandal.

Jones has served as acting ATF director August 2011, but only focused on ATF on a part-time basis while still maintaining his position as U.S. Attorney for the District of Minnesotta [sic]. The Senate hasn't confirmed an ATF director since 2006, when the law first began requiring the Senate to sign off on the president's pick. Even President George W. Bush couldn't get a Republican U.S. attorney through the process.

[...]

Jones, however, has gotten through the Senate confirmation twice before. He first served as a U.S. attorney under President Bill Clinton and returned to the position as soon as Obama took office. Eric Holder tapped him to head his Attorney General Advisory Committee until he was asked to take over ATF in the midst of a scandal in which agents allowed guns that were supposed to be under their supervision get out into the public. Several weapons turned up at crime scenes in Mexico.

Jones tossed six of the top eight assistant directors at ATF's fortress-esque headquarters in the northeastern part of Washington, D.C. He placed restrictions on undercover ATF operations and instituted monthly oversight on larger investigations. He has called his ATF gig the hardest jobs he's ever had. [Huffington Post, 1/16/13]

NRA Lobbying Efforts Are Behind The Years-Long Absence Of A Permanent ATF Director 

Congressional Quarterly: NRA-Backed Legislation Created Senate Confirmation Requirement For ATF Director. According to CQ, the gun rights lobby stood to benefit from a provision inserted into the 2006 reauthorization of The Patriot Act by then-House Judiciary Chairman F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-WI), requiring the Senate to confirm ATF directors. No director has been confirmed since this requirement went into effect:

The gun rights lobby has had a good couple of years in Congress, and the Senate's expected vote this week to clear a reauthorization of the 2001 anti-terrorism law (PL 107-56) [The Patriot Act] could be icing on the cake.

Deep within the conference report on the reauthorization bill (HR 3199) is a 38-word provision that would leave the nemesis of gun advocates, the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), more accountable to the Senate.

The provision would make the ATF director subject to Senate confirmation, thus giving senators a new bargaining chip in negotiations with the White House. Confirmations can be held hostage to satisfy individual senators' demands.

The provision, quietly inserted by House Judiciary Chairman F. James Sensenbrenner Jr., R-Wis., caps a run of good fortune for the National Rifle Association and other gun lobbies. [Congressional Quarterly Today, 2/24/06, via Nexis]

In 2010, The NRA Called On President Obama To Withdraw Nomination Of Andrew Traver. A press release from the NRA's lobbying arm, the Institute for Legislative Action, claimed Traver -- a 23-year veteran of the ATF who was the agency's special agent in charge at the Chicago field office at the time -- was "deeply aligned" with "anti-gun activities" and highlighted his support for bans on assault weapons and .50 caliber sniper rifles:

The NRA strongly opposes President Obama's nomination of Andrew Traver as director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (BATFE).  Traver has been deeply aligned with gun control advocates and anti-gun activities.  This makes him the wrong choice to lead an enforcement agency that has almost exclusive oversight and control over the firearms industry, its retailers and consumers.

[...]

Traver served as an advisor to the International Association for Chiefs of Police's (IACP) "Gun Violence Reduction Project," a "partnership" with the Joyce Foundation.  Both IACP and the Joyce Foundation are names synonymous with promoting a variety of gun control schemes at the federal and state levels.  Most of the individuals involved in this project were prominent gun control activists and lobbyists.

The IACP report, generated with Traver's help, called on Congress to ban thousands of commonly owned firearms by misrepresenting them as "assault weapons," as well as calling for bans on .50 caliber rifles and widely used types of ammunition. [National Rifle Association Institute for Legislative Action, 11/19/10]

NRA's Top Lobbyist Chris Cox On Traver's Nomination: It's Like Putting An Arsonist In Charge Of Fire Department. From a Talking Points Memo article on the NRA's opposition to Obama's nomination of Traver:

It didn't take long for the NRA to come out against Andrew Traver once his nomination was announced by the White House last Monday night. Less than two business days later, the NRA was out with a release not only opposing Traver's nomination, but calling for Obama to withdraw the nomination altogether. ATF, the agency charged with enforcing the nation's gun laws, has been without a permanent director since 2006.

"They might as well put an [arsonist] in charge of the fire department," NRA's top lobbyist Chris Cox told two radio hosts on an NRA-sponsored program in a clip posted on the NRA website. [Talking Points Memo, 11/23/10]

ATF Director Vacancy Has A Negative Impact On The Agency

Bush ATF Director Nominee Michael Sullivan: ATF "Needs A Full-Time Leader" Because "Morale Is Very Low." Sullivan, whose nomination for director was blocked by Senate Republicans in 2008, explained to the Los Angeles Times in 2011 that ATF employees "have felt abandoned because they didn't have a leader who had the confidence of the people at the Justice Department and the White House":

"People said to me at the time that if Mike Sullivan can't be confirmed, then no one was going to be confirmed," recalled Sullivan, who served as acting ATF director while remaining as the top federal prosecutor in Boston. "The agency needs a full-time leader. People there say morale is very low. They have felt abandoned because they didn't have a leader who had the confidence of the people at the Justice Department and the White House." [Los Angeles Times9/6/11]

Brady Center To Prevent Gun Violence: "Without A Leader, ATF's Ability To Stop Gun Trafficking By Corrupt Gun Dealers Is Significantly Curtailed." From an August 2010 report noting that the "ATF lacks a leader who can decide on strategic plans and broad strategies":

Agents and staff at ATF engage in courageous work every day to protect our country from gun violence. Yet without a leader, ATF's ability to stop gun trafficking by corrupt gun dealers is significantly curtailed. A body without a head, ATF lacks a leader who can decide on strategic plans and broad strategies, who can marshal the agency's resources to achieve its objectives, and who can fight to obtain the resources it needs. [Brady Center To Prevent Gun Violence, August 2010]

New York Times: Law Enforcement Officials Say Director Vacancy Has "Kept The Agency From Developing A Coherent Agenda." From a Times article on the six-year absence of a permanent ATF director that noted, "in theory, the A.T.F. could take a lead role in setting a national agenda for reducing gun crime":

Law enforcement officials say that in theory, the A.T.F. could take a lead role in setting a national agenda for reducing gun crime, a goal that has gained renewed urgency with the school massacre in Newtown, Conn. But it is hampered, they say, by politically driven laws that make its job harder and by the ferocity of the debate over gun regulation.

"I think that they've really been muzzled over the last several years, at least, from doing their job effectively," said Frederick H. Bealefeld III, a former police commissioner in Baltimore. "They've really kind of been the whipping agency, caught in the political turmoil of Washington on the gun issue."

The bureau's struggles are epitomized by its lack of a full-time director since Congress, prodded by the N.R.A., decided that the position should require Senate confirmation. That leadership vacuum, Mr. Bealefeld and others said, has inevitably depleted morale and kept the agency from developing a coherent agenda. [The New York Times,12/25/12]

The NRA Also Interferes With The ATF's General Operations

NRA-Backed Legislative Amendments Hamper The ATF's Ability To Enforce Gun Laws And Firearm Dealer Regulations. The Center for American Progress released a report in March detailing how NRA-backed riders, which are often inserted into appropriations legislation, frustrate the ATF's ability to enforce the law:

Beginning in the late 1970s and accelerating over the past decade, Congress, at the behest of the National Rifle Association, or NRA, and others in the gun lobby, began incrementally chipping away at the federal government's ability to enforce the gun laws and protect the public from gun crime.

[...]

Inserting policy directives in spending bills bypasses the traditional process, which allows for more careful review and scrutiny of proposed legislation. Appropriations bills are intended to allocate funding to government agencies to ensure that they are capable of fulfilling their missions and performing essential functions. But the gun riders directed at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, or ATF, do exactly the opposite and instead impede the agency's ability to function and interfere with law enforcement efforts to curb gun-related crime by creating policy roadblocks in service to the gun lobby. As a group, the riders have limited how ATF can collect and share information to detect illegal gun trafficking, how it can regulate firearms sellers, and how it partners with federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies. [emphasis added] [Center for American Progress, 3/18/13]

Washington Post: The NRA Opposed ATF's Attempt To Crack Down On Smuggling Of Assault Weapons To Mexico. According to the Post, the NRA opposed an ATF proposal aimed at curbing gun trafficking to Mexico that requires gun dealers in border states to report to the agency multiple sales of assault weapons over short periods of time:

Behind the scenes, federal agents in charge of stopping gun trafficking to Mexico have quietly advanced a plan to help stem the smuggling of high-powered AK-47s and AR-15s to the bloody drug war south of the border.

The controversial proposal by officials at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives calls for a measure strongly opposed by the National Rifle Association: requiring gun dealers to report multiple sales of rifles and shotguns to ATF.

The gun issue is so incendiary and fear of the NRA so great that the ATF plan languished for months at the Justice Department, according to some senior law enforcement officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity but would not provide details.

The NRA got wind of the idea last month and warned its 4 million members in a "grassroots alert" that the administration might try to go around Congress to get such a plan enacted as an executive order or rule. [The Washington Post12/15/10]

Mayors Against Illegal Guns: NRA-Supported ATF "Modernization" Legislation Would Have Made It "Almost Impossible" For ATF To Shut Down Corrupt Gun Dealers. Mayors Against Illegal Guns explained how H.R. 1093, a repackage of previous legislative proposals to weaken the ATF, would redefine certain illegal gun sales as only "minor" violations and make it "almost impossible to impose any sanctions on lawbreaking gun dealers," among other provisions that would limit the ATF's actions:

H.R.1093 defines dangerous crimes, like selling a gun without a background check, as "minor" violations in most cases: Unlike prior versions of "ATF Reform" bills, H.R.1093 defines some of the most dangerous violations - including losing track of guns, failing to record the buyer's information and failing to conduct background checks - as "minor" in most cases. Under the guise of giving ATF more "flexibility" to impose fines or suspend licenses in lieu of revocation, H.R.1093 would permit ATF to seek only limited penalties -- written warnings, generally small fines (which may accrue without interest), or perhaps eventually a license suspension -- for many of the most dangerous public safety violations.

[...]

H.R.1093 makes it almost impossible to impose any sanctions on lawbreaking gun dealers: Current law allows ATF to revoke a gun dealer's license if the dealer knew the law and "disregarded" or was "plainly indifferent" to it - a substantial burden of proof. Although this bill allows a greater range of penalties, it requires an unnecessarily high evidentiary standard to impose any of those penalties. The bill requires ATF to show that the dealer both knew the law and acted intentionally to break it, a standard that exceeds normal requirements for civil and criminal cases. In other words, regardless of whether ATF seeks a mere warning or ultimately a license revocation, the agency would have to prove a dealer's mental state at the time the violations occurred - a virtually impossible standard to satisfy in these cases, and wholly inappropriate in administrative actions. [Mayors Against Illegal Guns, accessed 6/7/13]

Brady Center To Prevent Gun Violence: The NRA Has Opposed ATF Enforcement Against Corrupt Gun Dealers And Gun Show Traffickers. A 2010 report from the Brady Center details how the NRA opposed ATF action against corrupt gun dealer Sandy Abrams, who then sat on the NRA's board of directors, and also attacked the ATF for cracking down on illegal firearm trafficking at Virginia gun shows:

The National Rifle Association (NRA) has opposed ATF's attempts to shut down corrupt gun dealers and to disrupt gun trafficking at gun shows time and time again. In one high-profile example, the NRA defended Sandy Abrams, a gun dealer who served on the NRA's Board of Directors and had amassed 900 violations of federal gun laws, successfully delaying revocation of his license to sell firearms. After years of battling Abrams' lawyers in court, Abrams was stopped only after illegally selling an assault rifle to a criminal who shot at Baltimore police officers.

Similarly, when ATF took action at Richmond, VA gun shows to stop massive gun trafficking and gang operations that had been occurring there, the NRA denounced the successful ATF enforcement actions as "heavy handed" and "arguably illegal." [Brady Center To Prevent Gun Violence, August 2010]

Brady Center To Prevent Gun Violence: The NRA Has Threatened To Lobby For The Abolishment Of The ATF. A 2006 report issued by the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence quoted NRA Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre writing in the NRA's magazine that, "We plan to challenge [the ATF's] existence":

Between 1980 and 1987, for example, the number of ATF agents was slashed from 1,502 to 1,180, a drop of 21.5%, and the number of inspectors dropped from 655 to 626 even as the number of licensed firearms dealers exploded. By 1995, the NRA had launched a full assault to abolish ATF altogether, bragging to its members that it would seek "congressional hearings on gun rights abuses and brutal misconduct by the renegade [ATF]. We plan to challenge its existence." [emphasis in original] [Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, October 2006]

NRA Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre Has Lengthy History Of Anti-ATF Rhetoric

In 1995 Fundraising Letter, LaPierre Called Federal Law Enforcement Agents "Jack-Booted Government Thugs" Who Wear "Nazi Bucket Helmets And Black Storm Trooper Uniforms." From an April 26, 1995, article in The Washington Post:

"If you have a badge, you have the government's go-ahead to harass, intimidate, even murder law-abiding citizens," said a recent NRA solicitation letter signed by LaPierre. "Randy Weaver at Ruby Ridge ... Waco and the Branch Davidians. ... Not too long ago, it was unthinkable for federal agents wearing Nazi bucket helmets and black storm trooper uniforms to attack law-abiding citizens. Not today."

The solicitation calls for lifting the assault weapons ban to even the odds in the struggle between ordinary citizens and "jack-booted government thugs [who have] more power to take away our constitutional rights, break in our doors, seize our guns, destroy our property, and even injure or kill us." [The Washington Post, 4/26/95, via Nexis]

LaPierre Clarifies: He Was Referring Just To The ATF, Not All Federal Law Enforcement Officers. Facing backlash over the fundraising letter, LaPierre apologized for "the fact that the words in that letter have been interpreted to apply to all federal law-enforcement officers," and clarified that he was writing primarily about the ATF:

The National Rifle Association has apologized for a recent fund-raising letter that described some federal agents as "jack-booted thugs."

"I really feel bad about the fact that the words in that letter have been interpreted to apply to all federal law-enforcement officers," NRA Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre said in a telephone interview from Phoenix.
"If anyone thought the intention was to paint all federal law-enforcement officials with the same broad brush, I'm sorry, and I apologize," LaPierre said yesterday.

[...]

LaPierre insisted that the fund-raising letter was intended to criticize only isolated actions, primarily involving the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.

But at least one section of the letter offered a more sweeping condemnation of federal law-enforcement efforts.

The letter, sent to the NRA's 3.5 million members in March over LaPierre's signature, referred to federal law-enforcement agents as "jack-booted government thugs" and said that "in Clinton's administration, if you have a badge, you have the government's go-ahead to harass, intimidate, even murder law-abiding citizens." [Associated Press, 5/18/95]

Posted In
Justice & Civil Liberties, Guns
Stories/Interests
Guns, Operation Fast and Furious, National Rifle Association
We've changed our commenting system to Disqus.
Instructions for signing up and claiming your comment history are located here.
Updated rules for commenting are here.