Attempting to change the direction of a congressional probe, the ranking Democratic member of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee held a forum Thursday focusing entirely on reforming gun trafficking laws – not blaming Justice Department officials.
Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.) used momentum from an investigation into the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives’ Operation “Fast and Furious” to organize a panel of law enforcement experts and gun safety advocates. The panelists pushed for tighter restrictions on straw purchasers and firearms trafficking in an effort to curb gun violence along the U.S.-Mexican border.
“It just seems like we have a situation that cries out … for folks putting political considerations to the side and trying to address this issue,” Cummings said.
But Cummings’ remarks also highlighted the lack of Republican attendees at the forum. Their absence, as well as a report released by Cummings’ early Thursday, highlighted the divergent approaches the two parties have taken during the probe.
Led by Chairman Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) and Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), Republicans have focused largely on holding high-level ATF and DOJ officials accountable for authorizing the operation that allegedly allowed thousands of firearms to be sold to straw purchasers in Arizona and trafficked into Mexico – a violation of federal law.
Meanwhile, Cummings and other Democratic members have used testimony from various law enforcement agents to buttress calls for enhanced gun trafficking laws and tighter reporting requirements on firearm sales.
Cummings downplayed this partisan backdrop Thursday, saying that the forum was an attempt to address problems brought to his attention by ATF agents who testified during the committee’s June 15 hearing.
“The whistleblowers came in and said, yes we’ve got to deal with Fast and Furious … but they also said, we’ve got some other problems,” Cummings said. “These are words that came from the witnesses that were called by my colleagues and Mr. Issa.”
But Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.) didn’t pull her punches, criticizing Republican committee members for ignoring testimony from the ATF agents.
“Despite the majority’s own witnesses testifying to the need for better tools to curb gun trafficking, the majority doesn’t even want to talk about it,” she said at the forum.
Maloney said she plans to introduce a bill addressing “gaping loopholes” in gun trafficking law within the next week. It would specifically prohibit firearms trafficking — currently not addressed under federal law — and raise penalties for straw purchasers.
Cummings has said he also wants more robust reporting of the sale of so-called “long guns,” or high caliber firearms designed for military use.
Kristen Rand, legislative director with the Violence Policy Center, said the easy availability of military-grade weapons in many states has allowed drug cartels to wage war with virtual impunity across the border.
“The average American would be shocked if they knew what today’s gun industry is,” Rand said. “The vast majority of the gun industry today is focused on making these weapons of war … and they don’t really care who they’re selling them to.”
Testimony from law enforcement experts also highlighted the difficulty of prosecuting straw purchasers, reinforcing comments from June 15 when ATF Special Agent Peter Forcelli called the laws “toothless.”
Cummings and Issa joined a bipartisan group that recently traveled to Mexico to speak with federal police, intelligence agents and Mexican government officials, who Cummings said shared the concerns of officials in the U.S.
“Almost everything we heard here today, they told us when we were on the ground” in Mexico, Cummings said. “Basically they’re almost begging us to help them do their job.”