ATF fears budget cuts would imperil gun-trafficking fight at Mexico border

Authorities have struggled to keep U.S. retailers' firearms from falling into the hands of drug cartels as violence increases south of the border.
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, January 31, 2011; 12:08 AM

About three weeks before the deadly shootings in Tucson renewed a national debate about gun control, the White House budget office proposed steep cuts for the agency charged with enforcing federal gun laws.

When officials at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives saw the proposal, they concluded it would effectively eliminate a major initiative in the fight against firearms trafficking on the Mexican border, according to people familiar with the budget process but not authorized to speak on the record.

Project Gunrunner is a signature effort by the Obama administration to assist Mexico in stemming the flow of guns south of the border. Under the project, federal officials in Arizona last week arrested more than a dozen people named in a 53-count indictment alleging that a network of gun buyers and smugglers had planned to ship hundreds of weapons to Mexican drug cartels.

Dubbed "Fast and Furious," the investigation found traffickers purchasing 10, 20, 30 or 40 AK-47-style rifles at a time from gun shops in the Phoenix area. On one day in April, a couple now charged in the case paid $18,000 and walked out of a retail store with three .50-caliber, armor-piercing Barrett sniper rifles.

The proposed ATF cutbacks, which would amount to nearly $160 million out of a $1.25 billion budget request - a 12.8 percent reduction that would also be 3.6 percent below the current budget - are outlined in a preliminary budget document obtained by The Washington Post. ATF spokesman Scot Thomasson declined to comment, because the budget process was not complete.

Administration officials said it is unclear how deep the cuts ultimately will be, since the proposal was an early draft and is likely to change. But to some current and former ATF officials, the fact that budget officials contemplated the reductions is an indication of how low the agency ranks in the Obama administration's pecking order.

"ATF is the ugly stepchild of every administration," said James Cavanaugh, a former senior ATF official who retired last year after three decades. "It would really handicap the ATF. It's a small agency and it's a lean machine. There are not a lot of agents and inspectors. There is not a lot of fat. With ATF, it would be an amputation."

All federal agencies are facing a difficult budget year, with House Republicans calling for cuts of 30 percent or more. But law enforcement is generally more protected than most agencies. For example, the FBI is facing a 0.46 percent cut against its current budget.

Officials with the Office of Management and Budget did not return repeated calls last week.

Obama quiet on guns

Some agency officials held out hope that Obama, whose campaign promised tougher gun laws, would support their mission and budget, and strengthen their legal tools.

In addition to the contemplated budget reductions, the president has yet to make substantive comments about firearms policy - even after the Jan. 8 tragedy in Tucson that left six dead and 13 wounded.

In his State of the Union speech last week, Obama referred to Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.), who was shot in the head and seriously wounded, and 9-year-old Christina Taylor Green, who was killed. But the president disappointed gun-control organizations by avoiding the topic of gun regulation. After the speech, White House spokesmen said Obama would address gun policy at a later date.

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