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Dennis A. Henigan Headshot

House Gun Vote Shows Hypocrisy on Law Enforcement

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GUN CONTROL

"We don't need new gun laws. We just need to enforce the laws on the books."

How many times have you heard this argument from the gun lobby and its wholly-owned subsidiaries in Congress? And how many times have their actions on gun law enforcement exposed the hypocrisy of their words?

It has happened yet again on the issue of gun trafficking to Mexico. It is now beyond dispute that more than 60,000 guns -- primarily military-style semiautomatic assault rifles -- have moved from American gun shops in the border states into the hands of the murderous Mexican drug cartels, and more are moving every day. Yet on Friday, the House of Representatives, heeding only the National Rifle Association's command, voted to block the Obama administration from implementing a sensible proposal that would enhance enforcement of our laws to curb gun trafficking to the Mexican cartels.

Cartel-related Mexican violence, fueled by the flood of American guns, has taken a staggering 34,000 lives in recent years. The victims are not Mexican alone. Last week a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent was killed, and another was wounded, in an apparent drug gang attack in the northern Mexican state of San Luis Potosi. Last month a Texas missionary was shot to death in northern Mexico. In March of last year, a U.S. employee of the American consulate in Ciudad Juarez and her husband were killed when drug gang members fired on their car as they left a children's party. Cartel-related violence has occurred on American soil as well, in the form of kidnappings and abductions from Las Vegas to Texas to Atlanta.

Under the proposal advanced by the Justice Department's Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, licensed gun dealers in the border states of Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California would be required to report to ATF multiple sales of semiautomatic rifles that can take detachable ammunition magazines, like the high-capacity magazine used in the Tucson mass shooting. This new requirement would give law enforcement officials real time notification of large-volume sales of such favored cartel assault rifles as the AK-47 and the AR-15, sales that typically are "red flag" indicators of gun-trafficking. Such notification would give federal enforcers a valuable tool to move quickly to disrupt trafficking channels -- and arrest the traffickers -- before the guns reach the streets of Mexican cities and towns.

Take the case of Sean Steward, an indicted trafficker who, over two days in early December, 2009, bought 50 assault rifles at two stores and then, on Christmas Eve, bought another 40 at a store in Glendale, Arizona. Another accused trafficker, Uriel Patino, made multiple purchases of assault rifles on 20 separate occasions, including buying 40 on one day, 26 on another, and 16 on another. Federal law enforcers are prosecuting these traffickers, but long after the guns have made it into the hands of violent drug lords, exacting their grievous toll. ATF simply wants to find out about suspicious sales to traffickers as soon as they happen, to prevent the guns from reaching their deadly destination.

On Friday, the House, dominated by the Tea Party and their supplicants, heard all it needed to know from Rep. Dan Boren (D-Okla.), the sponsor of the amendment to block the ATF reporting rule: "I remind my colleagues this amendment carries the full support of the National Rifle Association." The NRA said "jump" and the House responded, "How high?"

Why is the NRA so opposed to the proposed rule? The gun lobby's leaders offer two transparently bogus reasons.

First, the NRA says the proposal "only burdens law-abiding gun owners and retailers." "If someone is breaking the law, go after them full-bore," says Chris Cox, lobbyist for the NRA. "If they aren't, leave them alone." The problem is that the government needs information to determine who is violating the law and who is not, and then to prosecute the violators. The ATF proposal would give the government more timely information to permit federal agents to go after the traffickers "full-bore" before the guns do their damage. It may be that some law-abiding citizens also will have their multiple purchases reported, but how is this different than requiring all citizens to report their income to IRS, in order that the law can be enforced against those who are tax evaders?

As to the claimed "burden" on dealers, these are the same dealers who the gun industry is fond of portraying as "partners" with ATF in fighting gun crime. Yet when ATF says it needs the dealers to fill out an additional form to fight trafficking to drug gangs, the industry whines about the "onerous" burden and becomes a "partner" only with the NRA.

Second, the NRA trots out its ultimate bogeyman, claiming the ATF plan amounts to a "registry" of gun owners. If the ATF proposal is gun registration, then we have had a system of registration for handguns for the last 40 years. Since the Gun Control Act of 1968, federal law has required gun dealers to report to ATF multiple sales of handguns because such sales are strong indicators of gun trafficking. The proposed ATF rule would apply this same reporting requirement to some semi-automatic rifles, but only those sold by dealers in four states and only for a period of one year. No other purchase of a rifle need be reported to ATF (though records of all gun sales by licensed dealers are maintained by the dealers). The charge of "registration" is nothing but a typical NRA scare tactic.

Since 2006, 14 U.S. Custom and Border Patrol Agents have been killed, most recently Brian Terry, fatally wounded in December of last year with an AK-47. There is little doubt that more courageous federal officers will be struck down, with assault rifles trafficked from American gun shops. Perhaps the NRA bosses, and the House members they control, can explain to the families of the slain federal agents, and to those of the Mexican citizens who have lost their lives to drug cartel gunfire, the wisdom of depriving ATF of an important tool against gun trafficking. But please spare us the phony talk about the need to "enforce the laws on the books."

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