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

By James V. Grimaldi and Sari Horwitz
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.

Lawmakers who favor tighter firearms laws have proposed new restrictions, particularly on high-capacity gun magazines such as the one used in the Tucson shootings. But there is little indication the Obama administration is eager to embrace the proposals, which are fiercely opposed by the gun lobby.

The National Rifle Association and the National Shooting Sports Foundation both said the actions of a "madman" should not cause restrictions that would affect law-abiding gun owners.

"Once again, you and your freedoms are being blamed for the acts of a deranged madman, who sent signal after signal that he was dangerous," NRA Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre said in an e-mail to members last week.

LaPierre's comment suggested problems with the backgroundcheck system, which is supposed to prevent felons and the mentally ill from purchasing firearms. The NRA in recent years has supported increased appropriations to ensure that the checks are "instant."

There might be some common ground for changes to the background check system. Even a pro-gun lawmaker is calling for an audit of the federal background check system for gun buyers. Rep. John D. Dingell (D-Mich.), a former NRA board member with an A rating from the group, joined Rep. Carolyn McCarthy (D-N.Y.), a gun-control advocate, in asking the Government Accountability Office to look at the system. Republican House Judiciary Committee staffers also plan to question FBI officials who oversee the system.

In addition to those proposals, ATF officials before Tucson asked the White House to approve an emergency rule to crack down on gunrunning to Mexico by requiring gun dealers to report bulk sales of semiautomatic rifles. The proposal was announced in December, and ATF had asked the Office of Management and Budget to approve the rule by Jan. 4. A Justice Department spokesman said he expects the White House to approve the rule this week.

If implemented, the rule would require gun dealers in four states - Arizona, California, New Mexico and Texas - to report to ATF sales of two or more "assault rifles" to the same buyer in a five-day period. The affected weapons would be semiautomatic rifles of .22 caliber and above with detachable magazines. Semiautomatic rifles such as AK-47s and AR-15s are favored weapons of Mexican drug cartels. Dealers nationwide already are required to report bulk handgun sales.

In addition to the uncertainty about its budget and enforcement regimen, ATF has been without a director since 2006, when Congress first required Senate confirmation for the position. Every nominee since has been held up in the Senate over problems raised by the gun lobby, which opposes Obama's nominee, Andy Traver, the bureau's special agent in charge in Chicago.

Former ATF director Bradley A. Buckles said the lack of a permanent director hurts ATF at budget time. "Undertaking the budget without a director is like fighting with one hand tied behind your back," he said.

The budget document says the proposed cuts to ATF are meant to eliminate duplication in explosives investigations, which the Justice Department last year divided between two agencies.

"FBI and ATF perform essentially the same functions regarding explosives, with the exception of licensee inspections," the document said.

ATF officials fear the proposed cuts would harm the Project Gunrunner border initiative because federal rules require the last hired to be laid off first, and most new hiring at the agency has been put toward the Southwest border effort. ATF has already moved funds from explosives work to the border initiative, sources said.

Those affected would include personnel in Mexico, where agents are helping Mexican officials trace guns seized by police in the bloody drug wars, the sources said. More than 65,000 guns have been traced back to sales in the United States.

Criticism of project

The Justice Department inspector general criticized Project Gunrunner for "significant weaknesses." It said that 68 percent of the project's investigations "are single-defendant cases, and some ATF managers discourage field personnel from conducting the types of complex conspiracy investigations that target higher-level members of trafficking rings."

ATF officials said that they are taking heed of the criticisms and that the budget cuts are looming at a time when their border efforts are making progress.

"Mexican drug lords go shopping for war weapons in Arizona," U.S. Attorney Dennis Burke said at a news conference in Phoenix last week to announce the bust of the alleged gunrunning ring.

According to the indictment, ATF officials determined that more than 600 of the 700 guns purchased by the network had come from a single U.S. gun store, Lone Wolf Trading Co. in Glendale, Ariz., a Phoenix suburb. Lone Wolf was not charged with any wrongdoing.

Last year, The Post reported that Lone Wolf ranked first among U.S. stores with the most guns traced to Mexican crime scenes, with 185 firearms traced to Mexico over a two-year period.

In a strip mall next to a spa, Lone Wolf features mounted animal heads on walls and model airplanes hanging from the ceiling. A sign last fall behind the cash register advertised AK-47s for $499. With about 1,515 crime guns traced, Lone Wolf ranked eighth overall on the list of U.S. guns stores with firearms traced from crimes. The rank is a jump from No. 61 on the 2004 list of gun stores that sold firearms traced to crimes.

Last year, 12 people were indicted on charges of making false statements in order to buy 17 AK-47-type rifles headed to Mexico. The guns were purchased from seven stores, including Lone Wolf. Owner Andre Howard could not be reached for comment. ATF officials said they have no indication that Lone Wolf has done anything wrong in any of the cases.

Bill Newell, special agent in charge of the ATF Phoenix office, said last week that the "Fast and Furious" investigation was "further proof of the relentless efforts by Mexican drug cartels, especially the Sinaloa Cartel, to illegally acquire large quantities of firearms in Arizona and elsewhere in the U.S."

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