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First 100 days: Assault weapons ban

One-hundred days into his presidency, President Obama says it remains a goal to permanently reinstate a ban on assault weapons. But NBC's Pete Williams says it is a goal the White House has been forced to abandon.
In this Nov. 2008 photo, a soldier stands guard during a presentation of seized weapons. Mexico insists the U.S. do more to stop the gun smuggling that is arming the world's most powerful drug cartels with U.S. assault rifles.
In this Nov. 2008 photo, a soldier stands guard during a presentation of seized weapons. Mexico insists the U.S. do more to stop the gun smuggling that is arming the world's most powerful drug cartels with U.S. assault rifles. Gregory Bull / AP file

Campaigning before a church congregation on Chicago’s South Side one Sunday in July 2007, Barack Obama said an epidemic of big city violence was “sickening the soul of this nation.”

Among the potential cures, he said, was permanently reinstating a ban on assault weapons.

One-hundred days into his presidency, President Obama says it remains a goal. But it is one the White House has been forced to abandon.

Voices of agreement
President Obama and Vice-President Biden, “support making the expired federal Assault Weapons Ban permanent,” the White House website declares. Shortly after taking office, members of the Obama cabinet added their voices of agreement.

At his first news conference as attorney general, Eric Holder said, “there are just a few gun-related changes what we would like to make, and among them would be to reinstitute the ban.”

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton endorsed the idea during her trip to Mexico in late March. “These assault weapons, these military-style weapons, don’t belong on anyone’s street,” she said.

But the fire has gone out of President Obama’s goal of restricting the availability of firearms. “I don’t know of any plans,” said White House spokesman Robert Gibbs, to seek an assault weapons ban from Congress.

Attorney General Holder admitted as much when asked, during a recent session with reporters, whether he expected any push for a ban this year to curb the flow of guns from the United States to Mexico.

His answer could have come straight from the National Rifle Association: “I think what we’re going to do is to try to, obviously, enforce the laws on the books.”

Support evaporated
Congress imposed a ban on what it called assault weapons in 1994, outlawing the sale and importation of 19 military-style weapons, copycat models with similar features, and high-capacity ammunition magazines. In a compromise with Republicans, the Democrats who controlled Congress agreed to let it expire in ten years unless it was renewed. By 2004, with Republicans in charge, support had evaporated.

Democrats again control Congress, and a Democrat is once more in the White House, the same conditions that allowed the ban to be imposed 15 years ago. But the make-up of Congress is different, with little appetite for restricting gun ownership.

The Senate’s majority leader is a westerner, Harry Reid of Nevada, where gun control is political poison. And though the House speaker, Nancy Pelosi, comes from the more liberal San Francisco, she has shown no enthusiasm for reviving the assault weapons ban because of opposition among her colleagues.

Sixty-five House Democrats wrote Attorney General Holder in mid-March, saying they “would actively oppose any effort to reinstate the 1994 ban” and predicting “a long and divisive fight” if the administration tried to push for one. Many of them represent rural districts, where gun control is no more popular than in Nevada.

By the time President Obama made his trip to Mexico, he conceded the battle would be futile. “None of us are any illusion that reinstating that ban would be easy.”

“What we’re focused on is how we can improve our enforcement of existing laws,” he said.

Straw buyers
Enforcement of the nation’s gun laws is primarily the responsibility of ATF, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives. Its agents and inspectors check to see that gun dealers obey laws governing sales. They look for evidence of “straw buyers” – people legally entitled to buy guns who then sell them to criminals or others who don’t want any records tying them to a specific gun.

ATF says such buyers are responsible for a large proportion of guns that wind up in the hands of violent drug cartels in Mexico.

“These illegal purchases,” ATF’s William Newell told Congress last month, are “a key source and supply of firearms for drug traffickers.”

The best way to improve enforcement of existing gun laws, said one veteran ATF agent, is to put more badges on the street.

“Give us more people to inspect gun dealers, looking for straw buyers, in the states where the guns smuggled into Mexico are coming from,” he says.

The number of ATF inspectors has remained remarkably flat in the past two decades, while support staffing has grown in other federal agencies, including the FBI and Drug Enforcement Administration.

ATF had 764 inspectors in 1990. It has 771 today.

The number of ATF agents has risen 32% during the same period, but it is a comparatively small agency. ATF has 2,441 agents today, compared to the FBI’s 13,040 and the DEA’s 5,235.

It’s no accident that the size of ATF’s inspections force has remained flat. The NRA has successfully fought efforts to expand inspections, claiming that licensed firearms dealers have been harassed.

“Despite its crime-fighting mission,” a recent report from the Congressional Research Service dryly observed, “ATF’s business relationships with the firearms industry and larger gun-owning community have been a perennial source of tension.”

If new agents are hired, says the NRA’s Wayne LaPierre, “You need to make sure they’re directed to go after the bad guys, because owning firearms is a right in the United States, and what you don’t want to do is harass law abiding people.”

The NRA is on a roll. The Supreme Court ruled last year that the Second Amendment protects an individual’s right of gun ownership, not merely the right of organized militias to arm themselves.

Unless the mid-term election brings a substantial change in the composition of Congress, an assault weapons ban has little chance of becoming law under Barack Obama, and ATF will not be able to count on a larger force of agents and inspectors.

Gun control, once considered a soccer-mom issue popular in suburban America, is again radioactive.