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Dennis A. Henigan Headshot

How About If We Hold Congress in Contempt?

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As a House Committee prepares to vote on a resolution citing Attorney General Eric Holder for contempt of Congress over documents sought about the botched "Fast and Furious" gun trafficking operation, the American people should be wondering: Why is there no mechanism for us to hold the Congress in contempt? A contempt citation is exactly what Congress deserves for enabling the gun trafficking that "Fast and Furious" was an ill-conceived attempt to curtail.

The contempt vote will be the Republican leadership's latest escalation of the war against the Obama Administration over "Fast and Furious," in which about 2,000 guns purchased from border state gun shops were allowed to "walk" into the hands of the Mexican drug cartels in a misguided effort to get at the higher-ups in the cartels' gun trafficking operations. A month ago, in a precursor to the contempt strategy, the House Republican leadership, led by Speaker John Boehner, sent a letter to Attorney General Holder decrying the Justice Department's alleged "lack of full cooperation" in responding to a document subpoena from Rep. Darrell Issa's House Oversight Committee. Even apart from the silence of Republican leaders about the Bush Justice Department's use of similarly flawed "gun walking" tactics, the letter wreaks of hypocrisy.

For example, Speaker Boehner and his colleagues pretend to be concerned about the "serious harm" of "Fast and Furious" to the "important bilateral relationship" between the United States and Mexico, but make no effort to explain the failure of the Republican majority in the House of Representatives to respond to the desperate pleas of the Mexican government to strengthen American gun laws to curb the gun trafficking that gave rise to the "Fast and Furious" strategy in the first place. Two years ago, Mexican President Calderon told a Joint Session of Congress that the drug cartels in his country were exploiting weak American gun laws to amass their arsenals; indeed, he said the escalation of Mexican drug violence "coincides with the lifting of the assault weapons ban in 2004." President Calderon told the Congress of his understanding that the purpose of the Second Amendment "is to guarantee good American citizens the ability to defend themselves and their Nation." "But believe me," he added, "many of these guns are not going to honest American hands."

Since his address, it has become even clearer that Mexican crime guns are originating in American gun shops. Last month, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives released its most recent data showing that, in the last five years, more than 68,000 crime guns were recovered in Mexico and traced back to the United States. The guns that "walked" across the border under the "Fast and Furious" operation constitute less than 3% of those guns. Where is Speaker Boehner's concern about the other 97%?

Not only has the Republican House majority done nothing to stem the trafficking of guns to Mexico; it has acted to block the modest efforts of the Obama Administration to address the problem. The House twice has voted to block continued implementation of the Administration's regulatory requirement that multiple sales of semi-automatic rifles in the border states be promptly reported to ATF to give the law enforcers real-time notice of the suspicious gun sales that are feeding the cartels. Given that "Fast and Furious" has been rightly criticized for allowing guns to "walk" to Mexico, it seems odd that House Republicans would object to a regulation that is enabling ATF to better stop trafficked guns before they get to the border and to arrest the traffickers.

In less than one year, ATF opened more than 120 criminal investigations based solely on the rifle reporting rule, more than 25 of which have been referred to prosecutors. It is difficult to take seriously the Republican leaders' expression of concern about cracking down on gun trafficking, when they are working to dismantle an initiative of such obvious enforcement value. The cold reality is that Speaker Boehner and his colleagues will exploit the "Fast and Furious" fiasco for political gain, but they have no intention of doing anything to curb gun trafficking because they long ago sold their souls to the gun lobby.

Although the American people can't hold Congress in contempt, it can hold its Members accountable at the polls come November. The American public can start now, by making it clear that there will be a political price to pay for any Member who continues to do the bidding of the gun lobby, offering nothing but transparent hypocrisy to families in Mexico, and America, put at risk by weak U.S. gun laws.

Every American can make an immediate and compelling statement by signing the Brady Campaign's on-line petition agreeing to make the gun issue a voting issue in the upcoming elections. As Sarah Brady has said, "If our lawmakers will not change the gun laws, then for God's sake, let's change the lawmakers."

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