By Jordy Yager - 11/05/11 04:00 PM EDT
Eric Holder has a gun problem.
As the chief law enforcement officer Attorney General Eric Holder came out swinging in the first months of the Obama administration as he pushed to reinstate the assault weapons ban, pointing to the rising levels of violence in Mexico and increased presence of U.S. guns south of the border.
Amid a plethora of Republican calls for Holder’s resignation, Democrats have silently indicated their support for the attorney general. Instead of taking him to task for Operation Fast and Furious, Democratic lawmakers have tried to draw attention to what they describe as the country’s weak network of gun laws.
Starting next week and stretching into December, Holder is likely to experience the most intense heat yet. Republicans on the Senate and House Judiciary Committees plan to grill him on whether he knew about the controversial “gun walking” tactics used in Operation Fast and Furious, which may have contributed to the death of at least one federal agent.
Holder maintains that he did not know about the “gun walking” methods — a tactic used in tracking guns by overseeing the transfer of firearms into the hands of known or suspected criminals without immediately intercepting them — and has asked the Justice Department’s (DOJ) independent Inspector General’s (IG) office to complete an investigation.
President Obama campaigned for the White House on a strong platform of protecting Second Amendment rights and gun ownership in the U.S., but he left the door open for potentially significant changes to criminal laws.
“As a general principle, I believe that the Constitution confers an individual right to bear arms,” said Obama in a debate in 2008. “But just because you have an individual right does not mean that the state or local government can’t constrain the exercise of that right.”
Despite the increased levels of scrutiny and opposition from Capitol Hill Republicans to revamp the country’s gun laws, DOJ officials hold that Holder has made progress towards making the nation safer with respect to firearms protections.
They point to changes in the U.S. sentencing guidelines that went into effect this week increasing criminal penalties for straw buyers of firearms. DOJ officials also lauded the rule implemented earlier this year that requires gun dealers in the Southwest border region to report within five days multiple sales to the same person of semi-automatic rifles with removable magazines.
House Republicans successfully attached an amendment to an appropriations bill to strip funding for the rule.
Democratic lawmakers contend that Operation Fast and Furious exemplifies the need to strengthen U.S. gun laws to give federal law enforcement officials more tools to prosecute criminal weapon traffickers.
“This hunt for blame doesn’t really speak about the problem,” said Sen. Dianne Feinstein at a recent Senate Judiciary hearing while discussing Fast and Furious.
“And the problem is, anybody can walk in and buy anything, .50-caliber weapons, sniper weapons, buy them in large amounts, and send them down to Mexico. So, the question really becomes, what do we do about this?”
The ranking Democrat on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, Rep. Elijah Cummings (Md.), and Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.) have introduced a dedicated firearms trafficking statute, but it has stalled in the House Judiciary Committee.
Republicans on the House Oversight Committee, which has taken the lead investigating Fast and Furious, say that discussing gun laws and the botched operation are very different.
Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.), who worked as a federal prosecutor for six years, pointed to the federal sentencing guidelines for possession of illegal automatic machine guns, saying that the second illegal machine gun guarantees life in prison.
“When I hear people trying to make this a political conversation about the need to reform federal gun laws, what do you want other than life?” said Gowdy in an interview with The Hill. “I get it, I’d want to change the subject too if I were them. I’m happy to have a conversation about broader gun laws, but we’re going to do it after Fast and Furious.”
Republican efforts have been backed by the National Rifle Association (NRA), which has repeatedly called for Holder to resign, saying that he represents a threat to Second Amendment rights.
“Holder hasn’t done one thing to help gun owners or to enhance the Second Amendment rights of law abiding Americans,” said NRA spokesman Andrew Arulanandam in an interview.