Over a barrel? Meet White House gun policy adviser Steve Croley

April 11, 2011

On March 15, two months after a deadly shooting spree in Tucson left a U.S. congresswoman in critical condition, the nation’s leading gun-control activists took seats in Room 4525 at the Department of Justice to push the Obama administration for more firearm regulation. In the hour-and-a-half-long meeting, Assistant Attorney General Christopher H. Schroeder, who has coordinated the government’s work on the issue, went around a long conference table soliciting views from representatives of the major advocacy and law enforcement groups.

But the official the advocates wanted to hear from most stayed mostly quiet.

The silence of Steve Croley, the White House’s point man on gun regulation policy, echoes the decision by Democrats to remain mute on guns as a national issue, even in the wake of the Tucson rampage. Croley’s keep-your-head-down approach is in keeping with President Obama’s preference for low-key wonks, but in this case, his reticence has more to do with political reality: Democrats have no plans for serious gun-control initiatives, and the Gabrielle Giffords tragedy, as heart-rending as it was, hasn’t changed their minds.

The result for Croley is a tree-falls-in-the-woods conundrum: If President Obama, like just about every leading Democrat, has abandoned the issue, does the administration’s gun policy even exist? Cro­ley is undeniably present, but he doesn’t make a sound.

The buzz-cut gun owner with sharp cheekbones and a genius for regulatory law is, according to multiple advocates, on a “listening tour.” Activists with whom Croley has conferred described him as enigmatic, though their conversations have yielded certain strong impressions. Croley, who since August has been Obama’s assistant for justice and regulatory policy, favors closing a loophole in the law that allows unlicensed gun dealers to sell arms without background checks, especially at gun shows. His background in administrative law has especially prepared him for figuring out how state agencies can make their records readily available to a federal gun database.

One area in which Croley has shown less interest, according to several people who have spoken with him about the issue, is restricting the large-volume ammunition magazines that allowed the Tucson shooter to keep firing. When Paul Helmke, director of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, broached the subject during the March 15 gathering with Croley, officials promptly adjourned the meeting.

Croley, who characteristically declined to speak for this article, has a broad portfolio including good government and transparency issues, civil rights, food safety and criminal justice policy. Guns have accounted for only a small part of his workload, and it’s an issue with which he has little experience. But Croley’s friends and colleagues describe the 45-year-old University of Michigan legal scholar as an extraordinary man of catholic interests and talents.

In fact, it’s hard to imagine a more presentable face for the administration to spotlight on the gun issue.

Croley grew up hunting deer with his father in DeWitt, outside Lansing, Mich., and went on to attend Yale Law School. He founded a boxing club, and was known to hand out black eyes and swollen lips. “He’d take down guys 40, 50 pounds heavier than him,” said Robert Riley, a friend at Yale and the son of former Alabama governor Bob Riley. A newsletter at Berkeley Law School, where Croley taught in 2000, advised new students to add the jazz pianist’s “Steven Croley Trio” to their CD collection and to “relax and enjoy drinks at Yoshi’s with this consummate pianist and tort therapist.” This fall, he will preview a documentary about Dutch farmers and gay residents in Saugatuck, Mich., that he made with his wife, Bridget M. McCormack. (She has a D.C.-Hollywood insider in her family: Her sister is actress Mary Catherine McCormack, who played deputy national security adviser Kate Harper in “The West Wing” and Mary Matalin’s blond associate in HBO’s “K Street.”)

Croley himself has movie-star good looks. In 2006, the irreverent legal blog Above the Law named him a finalist in its “Law School Dean Hotties” contest. (“Steven Croley is THE Tom Cruise look-alike.”)

More relevant to his current brief, Croley’s theoretical perspective of law has steadily shifted to the “the nuts and bolts of how things work,” according to his friend and University of Michigan colleague Kyle D. Logue. Croley has moonlighted as a special assistant U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Michigan and is now widely cited on regulation and tort law. That reputation for pragmatism hit a snag in 2002 when his fingers were mangled in a snowblower accident. He had disregarded the warning label, and he became an on-campus case study: If one of the country’s leading tort scholars fails to heed an advisory label, professors posited, do such warnings carry any weight?

It’s just that sort of question about the role of regulation on dangerous products that has informed Croley’s approach to the gun issue.

“If you think of guns as the intersection of regulatory policy and torts, then nothing makes more sense than a professor specializing in regulation policy and torts” to work on gun policy, said Roderick Hills, a law professor at New York University and an old friend of Croley’s. He suggested that if the Supreme Court’s interpretation of the Second Amendment shaped a keyhole for regulation, Croley’s job is to make a skeleton key that fits that keyhole. “He’s the right guy,” Hills said.

The National Rifle Association, the powerful opponent to any gun restrictions, has yet to make Croley’s acquaintance. “He has had zero interaction with us,” said Andrew Arulanandam, the NRA’s director of public affairs. One reason for that lack of interaction: The NRA turned down an invitation to the March 15 session that Croley attended.

In recent meetings, Croley has been less revealing about his views of regulation than he was in his 2008 book “Regulation and Public Interests: The Possibility of Good Regulatory Government.” In this tome, Croley writes, “The evolution of the regulatory state has not been gradual, but rather reflects accelerated growth in response to periods of crisis and national trauma. In this light, regulation seems not only ubiquitous but inevitable.”

But in Obama’s Washington, national trauma does not lead inevitably to reform.

Rep. Carolyn McCarthy (D) of New York, who lost her husband in the 1993 shooting massacre on the Long Island Rail Road, recalled a meeting in 2008 with Croley when he served on Obama’s transition team. “Basically it was me doing all the talking, and you know what? I probably didn’t know who the guy was,” she said. “That didn’t make any difference; it was somebody from the White House.”

McCarthy and Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D) of New Jersey offered a bill that would ban the clips that hold large volumes of ammunition. The pugnacious McCarthy said that if the administration continued to stay on the sidelines, she and Lautenberg would get the job done themselves, but added that she “certainly had higher hopes with the administration.”

Lautenberg attempted to express optimism. The senator recalled that Attorney General Eric Holder visited him on March 29 “and tried to give us his assurance to help us with the legislation.”

During his campaign, Obama supported reintroducing the lapsed assault weapon ban, promised to eliminate an amendment requiring the FBI to destroy records of gun buyers’ background checks and advocated closing the gun-show loophole. Since taking office, the president has done none of that, and before the midterm elections, he shelved a proposal requiring gun dealers to report bulk sales of high-powered semiautomatic rifles. In his State of the Union address, just weeks after the Giffords shooting in January, Obama made no mention of guns.

On March 13, the president wrote an Arizona Daily Star opinion piece that suggested his support for closing the gun-show loophole but made no mention of restricting large clips.

Other leading Democrats, even those traditionally willing to offer full-throated support for gun-control efforts, have grown surprisingly less vocal as they take on more of a national role. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, a Florida Democrat and close friend of Giffords’s, is moving up to become the Democratic National Committee chairman. She declined to comment.

On March 30, the 30th anniversary of the assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan, Jim Brady, who sustained a debilitating head wound in the attack, and his wife, Sarah, came to Capitol Hill to push for a ban on the controversial “large magazines.” Brady, for whom the law requiring background checks on handgun purchasers is named, then met with White House press secretary Jay Carney. During the meeting, President Obama dropped in and, according to Sarah Brady, brought up the issue of gun control, “to fill us in that it was very much on his agenda,” she said.

“I just want you to know that we are working on it,” Brady recalled the president telling them. “We have to go through a few processes, but under the radar.”

In the meeting, she said, Obama discussed how records get into the system and what can be done about firearms retailers. Her husband specifically brought up the proposed ban on large magazine clips, and she noted that even former vice president Dick Cheney had suggested that some restrictions on the clips might make sense.

“He just laughed,” Sarah Brady said approvingly of the president. Both she and her husband, she emphasized, had absolute confidence that the president was committed to regulation.

In simpler, pre-administration times, so was the president’s point man. In Croley’s book, he argued that for all the healthy skepticism, in a complex world, regulation still amounted to “the least-worst solution to pressing social problems.”

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