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Paul Helmke

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In the ATF "Fast and Furious" Controversy, Congress Needs to Question Its Own Behavior

Posted: 06/29/11 12:01 PM ET

If California Rep. Darrell Issa and other congressional members who are in lock-step with the NRA bosses want to get to the bottom of the ATF gun trafficking operation, they need to start looking at their own actions and lack of action. By blocking and loosening laws to prevent gun violence they, too, are culpable in ATF's "Fast and Furious" apparent debacle.

This poorly-executed operation had agents skulking around gun shops to watch and possibly document numerous illegal firearms sales in Arizona. The unstopped gun runners then resold about 2,000 assault weapons to violent Mexican drug cartels. Further tragedy unfolded when two of the guns were found at the murder scene of U.S. Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry in December 2010.

On Thursday, I'll be testifying at a congressional forum chaired by Maryland Rep. Elijah Cummings on the issues of America's weak gun laws and the ATF operation that has put the spotlight on gun violence that touches too many lives in America and Mexico.

The testimony from Terry's family members during the recent ATF hearing called by Rep. Issa was heart-wrenching. I've witnessed that kind of pain over and over again in the many years I've worked as a mayor and as President of the Brady Campaign -- victims senselessly killed by guns made too easily available to dangerous people and devastated survivors struggling to deal with the consequences of it all.

At the bidding of the gun lobby, a majority of congressional members, Democrats and Republicans, continue to keep the nation's gun laws weak and full of holes that disreputable gun dealers and dangerous people exploit to the peril of citizens on both sides of the border.

Rep. Issa and others can point fingers at the ATF for mounting a failed mission, but it is Congress that prevents the ATF from getting an annual inventory from dealers on guns sales to address the problem of guns "disappearing" from gun shops with no record of sales. That stops the agency from quickly shutting down corrupt shops.

Congress allows dealers to destroy criminal background check records after 24 hours, preventing the ATF from learning how well shops are following the Brady background checks requirements. Through the Tiahrt Amendment, Congress limits the ATF's ability to disclose gun trace data to the public so residents will not know whether there is a dealer in their midst with a track record of selling to dangerous people. ATF trace data have shown in the past that only 1 percent of gun dealers are responsible for about 60 percent of gun sales traced to crime scenes in this country.

Too many federal officials appear deaf to the majority of Americans who want reasonable gun laws so they don't end up becoming targets. These officials appear to respond only to the pleas of the gun lobbyists who are terrified that rapidly declining gun ownership -- as a recent study by the Violence Policy Center found -- will decimate the gun industry's profits.

So, despite the killing of Agent Terry, the vicious murders of thousands of Mexican citizens and the wounding of one of their own, Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, lawmakers in Washington, D.C., are pushing even more legislation to protect gun dealers from disclosing to whom they are selling firearms. The so-called "ATF Reform Act of 2011" (S. 835 and H.R. 1093) won't make anyone safer. Instead, it would make it even more difficult for the ATF to stop corrupt gun dealers. The bills would require the ATF to show that a dealer not only violated the law, but had the specific intent to do so. It's another loophole for corrupt gun dealers to snake through.

So rather than look at their complicity in the ATF's record in stopping gun trafficking, predictably, Congress' probe has narrowed to make the acting FBI Director Kenneth Melson the primary target. He's being pressured to resign for not properly managing the operation. But many federal officials, including Rep. Issa, are not doing their part to end the lawlessness along the border and in our communities.

I was on a panel on border issues during the U.S. Conference of Mayors Annual Meeting in Baltimore 10 days ago. It was chaired by Mayor Raul G. Salinas from Laredo, Texas, who is frustrated that congressional members have been horn-locked so long, that pressing borders issues, such as immigration reform and drug trafficking, have been ignored. The trafficking of illegal guns across the U.S.-Mexican border is not usually linked in conversations about immigration reform. But gun trafficking has become another border issue that has gotten out of control.

It is time for Washington's politicians to look out for average people who do not deserve to have unethical gun dealers -- and the gun lobby that shields them -- pushing illegal guns into their neighborhoods.


Follow the Brady Campaign on Facebook and Twitter. This entry, along with past entries, has been co-posted at the Brady Campaign online.