08/10/2010 10:20 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

A Leaderless ATF Chooses the Wrong Target

As a former Midwestern mayor who dealt daily with real challenges and real needs, there are days in Washington, D.C., when I just have to scratch my head in wonder of how the federal government works. Today is one of those days.

As I've mentioned before, terrorists have ludicrously easy access to guns in this country.


A famous Al Qaeda training manual instructed operatives here how to obtain AK-47s from gun shows, where willing "private" sellers can transfer high-powered military assault rifles to anyone without conducting a Brady background check. Political extremists kill police officers in Pittsburgh out of delusional fears someone is coming to get their guns, shoot armed guards at the Pentagon to exhaust their hatred of government, kill a security guard at the Holocaust Museum in Washington DC, and threaten to kill U.S. Senators for voting for health care. The Southern Poverty Law Center says hate groups are on the rise, and an al Qaeda leader calls the U.S. Army officer who killed 13 people at Fort Hood a "hero" for his actions.

And now, the federal agency with specific responsibility for gun trafficking and gun crimes, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms & Explosives (ATF) has announced a crackdown on... tobacco.

A leading legal publication reported last week:

The Justice Department is proposing new regulations aimed at cracking down on the diversion of legal tobacco products onto the illegal market. The new regulations would expand a cigarette trafficking law, the Contraband Cigarette Trafficking Act, to cover smokeless tobacco, set up new reporting requirements and lower the minimum number of cigarettes required for a shipment to constitute illegal smuggling. Organized crime and international terrorist groups including Hezbollah and al-Qaeda have links to illegal tobacco trafficking, according to investigations by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) and other law enforcement agencies.

Don't get me wrong -- I've never been a smoker, and I'm all for taking steps to highlight the dangers of smoking. Smoking rates have flattened in the U.S. while still on the rise in much of the world, but cigarettes prematurely end too many lives in the U.S., and we should vigorously enforce the laws relating to the sale of tobacco.

But while the ATF announces it will fight our terrorist enemies' access to our cigarette supply, the agency continues to sit out the debate about whether we should close the "terror gap" in our background check system for gun purchases that enables terror watch list suspects to buy all the guns they want, and the gun show loophole that allows them to buy guns without Brady background checks.

This leads to a relatively straightforward question: Given a choice of shutting off al Qaeda's access to American guns and its access to American cigarettes, which should be the higher priority?

Researchers at Harvard and UCLA recently released a study showing U.S. homicide rates were 6.9 times higher than rates in the other high-income countries, driven by firearm homicide rates that were 19.5 times higher. For 15 year olds to 24 year olds, firearm homicide rates in the United States were 42.7 times higher than in the other countries. A firearm homicide death toll equivalent to the Virginia Tech tragedy, 32 murdered, happens every day in this country.

Last week, the organization that I lead, the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, issued a report about President Obama's failure to provide leadership for the ATF. The White House has apparently been afraid to nominate a Director for the ATF because of concerns with upsetting the gun lobby. I do not think that it is accidental that the career civil servants who are trying to run the ATF have chosen to announce a crackdown on tobacco rather than a renewed commitment to fight illegal gun trafficking to make it harder for dangerous people to get guns.

Two years ago, I never would have guessed that the sharpest focus of the ATF under President Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder would be cigarette smuggling. I guess that's what happens when the administration refuses to say or do anything about guns.

Through President Obama's term in office so far, the ATF has been unable to shut the doors of some of the most questionable gun dealers in the country. Looking only at Wisconsin, two bad actors in the industry have remained open for business despite years of allegations of willfully engaging in illegal straw purchases, losing track of hundreds of guns, or being at or near the top of the charts of source dealerships for guns quickly linked to crimes. ATF agents have been trying to close Milwaukee's Badger Guns, the former Badger Outdoors, since 2006, and Shawano Gun and Loan in Green Bay since 2007. A federal judge last week upheld the ATF's 2007 revocation of the license of Shawano Guns. So what's happening now? The owner is still selling guns, while he launches his appeal.

But I do still think the announcement about tobacco is important as an example of how politics can change in our country.

Forty years ago, a government agency would have been very reluctant to take on the tobacco lobby because of its political power. But dedicated public servants, like Reagan-era Surgeon General C. Everett Koop and Clinton-era Food and Drug Administration chief David Kessler, weren't afraid to stand up and push for change. Now, a generation later, cautious politicians no longer get nervous when the public calls for programs to reign in tobacco use.

If we can change our public servants' attitudes towards regulating tobacco, we can change their woeful cowardice about doing the right thing about access to guns, too.

It's pitiable, however, that in the meantime, terrorists can still arm themselves quickly and easily with serious weaponry in this country. But, hey -- at least the government is going to try to keep them away from tobacco.