The gun lobby and its supporters, who have continuously demanded more enforcement against illegal firearms trafficking rather than new restrictions, have given an inch toward backing up their demands by permitting the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives to have a permanent director for the first time in seven years.
The Senate voted Wednesday to approve B. Todd Jones to lead the agency. It is now up to the ATF to pull itself together under the long-denied central command and come up with an overall policy for cutting down criminal gun violence. That won’t be easy, considering road blocks such as the lack of universal background checks for firearms purchasers of all stripes and in every venue and Congress’s failure to limit the sale of high-powered military weapons or the number of bullets in a clip. But it is a start.
Whether Jones himself is up to the task still is to be determined. Certainly, until his confirmation last week in the Senate with the acquiescence of the National Rifle Association and the National Shooting Sports Foundation, the two main antagonists of the gun-control forces, Jones was handicapped by also holding down his U.S. attorney’s post in Minneapolis. With that burden lifted, he now is free to focus on tough questions, including the movement of firearms to Mexico.
His agency’s image was tattered by the Fast and Furious scandal, in which straw purchasers of firearms were allowed to walk assault rifles across the border. Two of these weapons were found near the site of a December 2010 ambush in which a Border Patrol officer was killed, setting off a congressional firestorm. It hasn’t been determined whether the weapons were used in the attack. The operation, conducted out of the ATF’s Phoenix office, was aimed at tracking guns to their end destination in the drug and weapons cartels. Jones was not with ATF at the time, but criticism lingers -- mainly for political reasons.
In the interest of transparency, I must say my son is a former ATF agent who has long argued that everyone in the gun debate would benefit from a central, permanent command in the Justice Department agency. Under a series of acting directors, ATF has suffered from a lack of long-range direction and coherent policy. Morale also has been damaged by a constant change of goals and personnel.
Clearly, the NRA and the National Shooting Sports Foundation, so adamantly opposed to most any gun restrictions, relented at this time because they saw the incongruity of their claims that no new laws are necessary, only the enforcement of the current ones. Those arguments don’t hold up when the agency designated as the first responder in gun crime is denied even a permanent director, not to mention a host of other tools and lack of support. The NRA lobbyists wrung out of Congress a law forcing any nominee for the ATF directorship to face Senate confirmation. Then NRA supporters in the Senate denied that process for any nominee for all those years.
Jones must make some friends on Capitol Hill and show that the agency has never opposed lawful gun ownership and usage -- from ATF’s origins in the Treasury Department and following its transfer to the Justice Department after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on America. It will take a lot of skill to increase the agency’s budget and build ATF’s force from 2,500 agents to a respectable level. Congressional toadies of the NRA have manacled ATF as no other federal law enforcement has ever been.
Loosening the stranglehold on ATF to allow a permanent director does not mean that the gun lobby will embrace the agency. This may just be a move designed by the NRA to convince its critics that it is willing to be sensible about some things, after it defeated the president’s attempt at new gun restrictions following the massacre of children at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.
Whatever, it is an important gesture for the agency, which for too long has been the whipping boy for Second Amendment casuists who believe the founding fathers wanted us all to put a gun under our pillows at night.
Jones needs to make the best of this.