By David Ignatius
Sunday, August 1, 2010; A19
How can it be possible that after 18 months in office, President Obama still has not appointed a director for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, the federal agency charged with monitoring illegal flows of weapons? We know the answer. The administration and Congress are scared of the gun lobby.
It's the kind of situation that makes you wonder if good governance has taken a holiday: Mexico is reeling from a drug-cartel insurgency that is armed mainly with weapons acquired in the United States; Arizona is so frightened about drug violence and other imagined Mexican dangers that its legislature enacted an anti-immigrant law that a federal judge says is unconstitutional.
Naming a new ATF chief to lead the fight against illegal weapons would be a small symbolic step. But it would signal to Mexicans and Arizonans alike that the administration is mobilizing to deal with these problems -- and is willing to take some political heat in the process. Yet this is not the season for "Profiles in Courage." When I queried the White House about the ATF vacancy, I got little more than a "no comment."
"The absence of a chief has hamstrung ATF's ability to aggressively target gun trafficking rings or corrupt firearms dealers and has demoralized its agents," Paul Helmke, president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, wrote in a June 10 letter to Obama. Nearly two months later, the job is still empty, and there are no leading candidates.
The numbers about weapons flows to Mexico are genuinely scary. From December 2006 through this past April, the Mexican government seized 31,946 handguns and 41,093 assault rifles. Of the weapons that could be traced, roughly 80 percent came from the United States, according to Mexican ambassador Arturo Sarukhan.
"Intelligence indicates these criminal organizations have tasked their money-laundering, distribution and transportation infrastructures with reaching into the United States to acquire firearms and ammunition," warned a 2008 ATF statement. There are roughly 7,000 U.S. gun dealers within 100 miles of the Mexican border.
A recent weapons seizure in Nuevo Leon, just across the border from Texas, illustrates the drug traffickers' arsenals. On May 11, after an armed confrontation, the Mexican army seized 124 assault rifles, 15 handguns, three anti-tank rockets, more than 5,000 rounds of ammunition and 1,375 ammo magazines.
Terry Goddard (D), Arizona's attorney general, risked his political career to work with the ATF. He promised Mexican officials in 2008 that he would try to crack the arms flows. And with help from both the ATF and Mexican authorities, Goddard's prosecutors brought a criminal case in May 2008 against X-Caliber Guns, a Phoenix gun dealer that was allegedly providing weapons used by the Mexican cartels.
Goddard's complaint alleged that X-Caliber had sold more than 700 AK-47s and other deadly weapons to straw buyers who planned to ship them to Mexican syndicates. "The important part of this case is the number of weapons that ended up at crime scenes in Mexico," Goddard said when the trial opened.
But as it turned out, the X-Caliber case showed that with Arizona's weak gun laws, prosecution was almost impossible -- even when there appeared to be strong facts. X-Caliber's owner had sold guns to ATF undercover agents after they told him they planned to resell the guns in Mexico.
An Arizona judge threw out the case days after it opened, ruling that the owner of X-Caliber and the other defendants hadn't done anything criminal. "There is no proof whatsoever that any prohibited possessor ended up with the firearms," the judge said.
And what did Goddard get for his efforts to stop what the ATF calls "an iron river of guns" into Mexico? After the case was thrown out, the owner of X-Caliber sued him for malicious prosecution. Goddard is now running for governor, challenging the anti-immigrant stance of Gov. Jan Brewer (R), but recent polls show him a distant second, trailing by about 20 points.
The prevailing political wisdom in America, to which the Obama administration evidently subscribes, is that it's folly to challenge the gun lobby. When Mexico's President Felipe Calderón addressed a joint session of Congress in May, he all but pleaded with lawmakers to help stop the flow of assault weapons. His call to action produced little more than a shrug of the shoulders in Washington. That ought to make us embarrassed. But the worst of it is that inaction on these issues has come to seem normal.