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Dennis A. Henigan Headshot

Obama and Guns: The End of Appeasement?

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Is the Obama administration finally ready to stand up to the gun lobby?

Since the midterm elections, the administration has made two moves it must have known would draw heavy fire from the National Rifle Association.

First, shortly after the elections, the White House announced its nomination of a new Director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) -- Andrew Traver -- whose experience at ATF gives every indication he will be a strong enforcer of federal gun laws. The NRA predictably blasted Traver. For the NRA, he had committed a mortal sin by serving as an adviser to the International Association of Chiefs of Police and its gun-violence-reduction efforts. The NRA's hostility to IACP is just the latest evidence of the gun lobby's longtime and shameful antipathy toward law enforcement.

Second, last week the Obama Justice Department responded to the growing crisis of gun trafficking from U.S. dealers to the Mexican drug cartels by announcing new reporting requirements on gun dealer multiple sales of high-capacity rifles to single buyers. The requirements apparently would apply to approximately 8,500 licensed gun dealers in the border states of Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California, and only for a one-year period.

Since 1968, federal law has required dealers to report multiple sales of handguns to ATF because they are such strong indicators of gun trafficking. However rifles -- even high-capacity semiautomatic assault rifles like the AR-15 and the AK-47 that are the favored killing machines of the Mexican cartels -- are not subject to multiple sale reporting. Last week, the Washington Post reported one instance where a suspected trafficker bought 14 AK-47s in one day from a single dealer. A reporting requirement would either deter such brazen high-volume purchases or enable ATF to move quickly against the buyers. The new requirement closes an important loophole, at least temporarily in the states where the dealers are the prime source of Mexican crime guns.

Yes, it's only a small step. But it is a step in the right direction, with political significance that may far eclipse its policy impact. For two years, the guiding principle of the administration's approach to gun violence has boiled down to this: "Whatever we do, don't rile up the gun guys!" This policy was no doubt motivated by a perceived need to appease the gun lobby in order to protect the "Blue Dog" Democrats in Congress, who were given a free pass to help carry the NRA's legislative water.

As it turned out, the appeasement strategy was a lose-lose proposition, with little political pay-off for the Democrats. By ignoring (and in some cases violating) campaign pledges to strengthen gun laws, the administration certainly contributed to the "enthusiasm gap" that played a part in losing so many races -- and control of the House. At the same time, catering to the gun lobby did not protect the Blue Dogs. 59 percent of the losing Democratic incumbents had "A" ratings from the NRA and more than half received the NRA's financial support. Some of the NRA's most steadfast supporters among the Blue Dogs -- like Travis Childers of Mississippi, Zack Space of Ohio and Rick Boucher of Virginia -- went down to defeat.

On the other hand, 82 percent of the Democrats who won reelection did so without NRA support. In some close races in key suburban districts where gun policy became an issue, identification with the pro-gun ideology may have cost the Republican candidate dearly. This likely was the case in Northern Virginia, for example, where Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.) won a narrow victory over Keith Fimian after the Republican had to apologize for his remark that the Virginia Tech massacre could have been prevented if "one of those kids in those classrooms" had been "packing heat." The NRA, of course, is intent on ensuring that kids in classrooms are "packing heat."

I somehow doubt that the administration's recent moves on gun policy are disconnected from the now-apparent political failure of its appeasement strategy. The new ATF initiative to fight Mexican gun trafficking has crossed a line -- and the administration knows it. For the first time since taking office, the president seems ready to do the right thing on guns, regardless of the virulent opposition of the gun lobby.

The NRA has denounced the new gun dealer reporting requirements as a "sweeping expansion of federal recordkeeping on gun owners" and an attempt to create a gun "registry." For the NRA, this is the ultimate battle cry.

As it has in the past, the NRA and the gun industry will launch an all-out attack on ATF in the new Congress. It will push legislation to make it virtually impossible for the Bureau to sanction lawbreaking gun dealers who aid and abet the traffickers arming the cartels in Mexico and the gangs in our own country. It will try to ensure that never again will ATF get notice that a gun dealer has just sold 14 assault rifles to a single buyer.

But this time the administration has made its own investment in a stronger ATF. This time the administration already has done the right thing in the face of certain gun-lobby retaliation. This time we now have reason to hope that President Obama will be prepared to fight. If he does, all Americans who seek sanity in our nation's gun policy should be ready to help him.

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