The Obama administration has taken a modest, though useful, step toward curbing the torrent of assault rifles flowing from U.S. gun shops into the hands of the Mexican drug cartels. Hopefully, it reflects a new willingness by the president to take on the gun lobby.
The Justice Department announced it will go forward to implement its proposed requirement that gun dealers in four states bordering Mexico notify federal law enforcement authorities whenever there is a multiple purchase of certain semi-automatic rifles. It is now clear that the sickening Mexican drug violence is fed primarily by guns trafficked from U.S. gun shops. It is equally clear that semi-automatic assault rifles are the cartels' weapon of choice. The new reporting requirement will give the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) timely notice when someone buys 5, 10, 20 or even more assault rifles from a dealer. This information allows ATF to identify the individuals who are likely functioning as straw buyers for the cartels, giving law enforcement a chance to arrest the traffickers, and interdict the guns, before they get to the border.
Of course, the National Rifle Association is in full lather about the new rule, promising a lawsuit and sending its lobbyists on a beeline to Capitol Hill to get Congress to block the rule from ever taking effect. Apparently the NRA wants to ensure that when a straw buyer walks away from a border state gun shop with 10 AR-15 assault rifles, that transaction will remain a dirty little secret between the buyer and the dealer. That is, until one of the guns is used against a Mexican police chief and the gun eventually is traced back to the U.S. gun shop.
In the recent hearings convened by Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA) on an ATF anti-trafficking operation dubbed "Fast and Furious," Issa and the NRA were stung by the testimony of one of Issa's own witnesses, an ATF agent from Phoenix who told Issa's committee that the proposed rifle multiple sale reporting rule would be a valuable new tool against trafficking. Given that the "Fast and Furious" operation has come under fire because ATF may have allowed guns to "walk" into Mexico, instead of stopping them before they got there, it seems odd that the NRA and other ATF critics also would object to a reporting requirement that would give ATF a better chance to stop trafficked guns before they cross the border.
That the administration has decided to go forward with the new reporting rule in the face of vehement NRA opposition may be a sign that the President has figured out the futility of a strategy of appeasing the gun lobby. In 2012 the NRA will do everything it can to defeat the President and will continue to function as one of the engines driving the Republican Party. Rather than placating the gun lobby, the President should recognize the political benefits he and the Democrats can reap when their opponents march in lockstep with the NRA.
For example, I hope the White House noticed the votes this week on amendments to Justice Department appropriations legislation. In a single Committee session, the Republican majority voted not only to bar ATF from spending money to enforce the new reporting rule, but also to allow persons on the terrorist watch lists to continue to buy guns, to allow the continued importation of shotguns with military features like mounts for grenade-launchers, and to bar Congress itself from getting crime gun trace data from ATF. In short, the president's opponents went on record as wanting to allow traffickers and terrorists to buy as many assault rifles as they want without law enforcement knowing about it, to ensure that their available choices in weaponry include shotguns with grenade launchers, and to keep Congress itself in the dark about whether the guns are used in crime.
This is the special kind of insanity that marching lockstep with the gun lobby necessarily entails. Are the president and his party now ready to use this insanity to help make the case that their opponents are just as irrationally ideological on guns as they are on a host of other issues?
After the Tucson tragedy, President Obama called for a new "discussion on how we can keep America safe for all our people." Six months after Tucson, it is now past time for discussion to yield to action. The policy announced this week is a step forward, but far more is needed. If the president is serious about preventing future Tucsons, he must seek legislation to ban the high-capacity assault clips that allowed the Tucson shooter to fire 32 rounds in 16 seconds. He must call for strengthening the Brady background check system and extending it to all gun sales.
And when his opponents resist such calls for common sense, he should embrace their resistance as a political gift which will keep on giving in 2012.
For more information, see Dennis Henigan's Lethal Logic: Exploding the Myths that Paralyze American Gun Policy (Potomac Books 2009)