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White House accuses GOP of helping Mexican drug cartels by targeting ATF

A Republican-led effort to abolish the federal gun agency has created a political opening for the White House as it looks to fend off soft-on-crime attacks.
Firearms at a gun shop in Salem, Ore., in 2021.
Firearms at a gun shop in Salem, Ore., in 2021.Andrew Selsky / AP file

The White House is opening a new line of attack on Republicans — as former President Donald Trump demands his party defund federal law enforcement — by arguing that threatening firearm-control agencies would help arm Mexican drug cartels that traffic fentanyl into the country.

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, a perennial target of gun rights supporters, risks a funding reduction or even outright elimination as House Republicans look for places to cut spending in government funding negotiations.

Meanwhile, as President Joe Biden gears up for re-election, the White House has been trying to turn the tables on Republicans, who often accuse Democrats of being anti-police and soft on crime, by pointing out that conservatives are now the ones who want to “defund the DOJ,” as Trump said Friday hours after he was arrested. 

White House spokesperson Andrew Bates, in a statement provided first to NBC News, said that Republicans are trying to thwart Biden’s effort to keep guns out of the hands of violent drug traffickers.

“MAGA Republican extremism in Congress is a growing threat to the fight against violent crime and fentanyl trafficking. President Biden is working hard to prevent the flow of firearms into the hands of drug cartels, as part of a comprehensive strategy to block the flow of fentanyl into the United States. But hardcore MAGA members of Congress are doing everything they can to thwart these efforts,” Bates said.

Researchers and government officials from both sides of the border have long tried to stop the so-called Iron Pipeline of U.S. guns, often assault-style rifles, that are smuggled into Mexico, where firearms are difficult to purchase legally. U.S. government estimates have found that as many as 70% of guns recovered by Mexican law enforcement agencies originate in the U.S.

“MAGA Republicans in Congress are trying to defund and abolish the ATF, the federal law enforcement agency responsible for helping stop the flow of firearms into the hands of gun traffickers,” Bates said, adding that “assault weapons purchased in the United States are arming drug cartels and enabling them to outgun law enforcement.”

Opposition from gun groups and Republicans kept the ATF without a permanent director for more than seven years. Biden's pick, Steven Dettelbach, was confirmed last year. The agency is at the center of Biden’s effort to use executive power to crack down on illegal guns, because any hope for legislation expired when Republicans won control of the House.

That has also made the ATF a bigger target for many gun rights supporters.

At a congressional hearing last month titled “ATF’s Assault on the Second Amendment: When is Enough Enough?” House Republicans vented their anger over a new rule on pistol braces and called for gutting or eliminating the agency.

“I hope that we can act to put an end to this ATF overreach, and I would suggest that the most effective approach is to reduce funding or, better still, eliminate all funding. And even better, eliminate this woke, weaponized agency,” Rep. Andy Biggs, R-Ariz., the chairman of the Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime and Federal Government Surveillance, said in his opening remarks.

Conservative firebrands like Reps. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., and Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., have sponsored legislation to abolish the ATF.

Gaetz’s entire bill reads, simply, “The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives is hereby abolished.” And he said on the House floor that “Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms should be the name of a chain of convenience stores in Florida, not a federal agency.”

Rep. Lauren Boebert, R-Colo., who once owned a restaurant named Shooters Grill, where the servers openly carried firearms, concurred, saying she was “still waiting to hear a good reason why the ATF should remain an agency at all.”

Some, like Rep. Eric Burlison, R-Mo., have suggested going even further by both defunding the ATF and eliminating the National Firearms Act, the primary legal authority for the agency.

Gun rights activists have loved to hate the ATF since its inception in 1972, especially after scandals like the deadly standoffs at Ruby Ridge, Idaho, and Waco, Texas, in the 1990s and the "Fast and Furious" scandal of the early 2000s.

President Ronald Reagan nearly killed the ATF in the 1980s, until his allies in the gun movement concluded it would be worse to have a more powerful agency like the FBI or the Secret Service take up its responsibilities, because the laws that empower the ATF would still have to be enforced by someone.

“They’re easy whipping boys because, unlike the FBI, they don’t have a wellspring of support in the country,” said Richard Feldman, a former lobbyist for the National Rifle Association and the firearms industry. 

Recognizing that dynamic, some on the left have suggested merging the ATF into the FBI.

Today, abolishing the ATF splits the gun movement. 

While smaller groups like Gun Owners of America and the Firearms Policy Coalition sell “abolish the ATF” merchandise, the National Sports Shooting Foundation — the firearms industry trade association — does not support disbanding the agency, preferring to be regulated by the relatively weak ATF over another agency, like the FBI.

The NRA, in a written statement to NBC News, called for curbing the ATF but stopped short of explicitly saying it should be defunded.

“Frustrated with their lack of progress restricting Americans’ Second Amendment rights, the Biden Department of Justice has decided to utilize the ATF as a tool to harass the nation’s law-abiding firearms community. The arbitrary approach taken by ATF towards enforcement actions and rulemaking is evidence of this vendetta. And, while under the new House majority, ATF will no longer be able to operate unchecked and is subject to Congressional oversight — the NRA looks forward to working with pro-Second Amendment legislators to rein in this rogue bureau,” it said. 

While abolishing the agency may be unlikely at the moment while Democrats control the Senate and the White House, gun safety advocates worry the maximalist rhetoric is being used to make deep cuts in its budget appear more reasonable. 

“Efforts to defund or abolish ATF are more than misguided; they’re dangerous,” said Rob Wilcox, the federal legal director for Everytown for Gun Safety, who testified at last month’s ATF hearing. “ATF plays an essential role in keeping us safe by enforcing the gun laws on the books, regulating the gun industry and partnering with state and local agencies” to trace guns used in crimes.

David Chipman, a former ATF special agent who was Biden’s first pick to lead the agency until opposition forced him into early retirement — “now I’m being humbled on the golf course instead of by Senate Judiciary” — said threats to the agency’s budget are a proven way to keep it compliant. 

“I find it ironic that the party that ran so hard against ‘defunding the police’ now wants to do exactly that,” Chipman said.

He said the threat to federal law enforcement funding should not be dismissed.

“I don’t think we can sit back and say this is just crazy talk or insane or will never happen,” he said. “The reality is there could be a collection of people who, in a very, very misguided way, are trying to side with President Trump and end up really harming the country.”