Focusing on what he says are weak laws rather than a controversial Justice Department gun smuggling operation, the ranking Democrat on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee released a report Thursday making the case for improving the “toothless” laws that prosecutors currently use to combat gun trafficking.
The report, released by Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.), uses information obtained by the committee’s investigation into the now-infamous Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives’ Operation “Fast and Furious” to push for enhanced criminal penalties, new enforcement tools and more robust gun-sale reporting.
Cummings will also hold a forum on gun trafficking and violence along the U.S.-Mexico border Thursday morning. That session is likely to cover topics that the chairman of the oversight committee ruled were not relevant during a June 15 hearing.
“The same law enforcement agents who were invited by Chairman [Rep. Darrell] Issa to testify about ATF’s Operation Fast and Furious have also warned the Committee that they are incredibly outgunned in the fight against international drug cartels that are trafficking tens of thousands of military-grade assault weapons from the United States to Mexico,” Cummings said in a statement. “This report recommends real solutions that will help improve the lives of Americans and our Mexican neighbors and allies.”
Congressional investigations of Fast and Furious began at the urging of Issa and Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, on March 16. Since then, Issa has subpoenaed thousands of documents from the Justice Department and heard testimony from several ATF agents and DOJ officials.
Issa and Grassley released a report on the operation earlier this month, which focused on how it was contributing to gun violence along the border. Its conclusions detailed alleged wrongdoing during the operation.
Cummings’ report, however, looks to improve ATF agents ability to prosecute gun traffickers and straw buyers – a difference that illustrates how the congressman has taken divergent approaches to the investigation.
During a hearing on June 15, Issa interrupted questioning of ATF agents by Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.) when she asked if weak gun laws made prosecutions difficult.
“One of you in your testimonies called these laws to prosecute ‘toothless,’” Maloney said. “Could you explain to me – why are existing straw purchase laws ‘toothless’?”
But Issa cut Maloney off, saying the scope of the hearing only encompassed testimony on Operation Fast and Furious and the agents’ testimony on gun laws or potential legislation would not be “considered valid testimony.”
Cummings’ report cited that episode as an attempt by Issa to “wall off any discussion of the nation’s gun laws.”
Responding to transcribed testimony from ATF agents, Cummings’ report calls for stronger penalties for firearm straw purchasers and the establishment of a dedicated firearms-trafficking statute.
“Currently there is no federal statute that specifically prohibits firearms trafficking,” the report says. “Instead, prosecutors attempt to charge traffickers with ‘paperwork violations,’ such as dealing in firearms without a license.”
The report also recommends requiring licensed gun dealers to report the sale of “long guns,” or heavy firearms like .50 caliber semiautomatic rifles and AK-variants, which are used frequently by the Mexican drug cartels.