By Jordy Yager - 01/10/13 10:00 AM EST
Attorney General Eric Holder will be the nation’s top law enforcement official as the administration tackles new restrictions on guns in a major initiative of President Obama’s second term.
The administration announced Wednesday that Holder, a longtime foe of the National Rifle Association (NRA), would remain with Obama for a second term.
Holder’s attendance at the talks suggests he will have a major role in the gun violence task force established by Obama in the wake of the killing of 26 people — including 20 6- and 7-year-olds — at an elementary school in Connecticut last month.
He is expected to attend more gun-related meetings on Thursday and Friday, according to a senior administration official, including the session with a representative from the NRA.
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Thus far, Holder and the Justice Department are staying quiet about what recommendations the attorney general might be making to the president as a member of the task force.
But gun-rights groups are suspicious of Holder’s involvement and fear he is pushing the White House toward tougher restrictions on gun ownership and increased penalties for illegal firearms.
Holder is no stranger to the charged politics of gun control. In the mid-1990s, when gun violence was at its height in Washington, D.C., Holder made a name for himself by implementing a series of strict gun-reform measures known as “Operation Cease-Fire.”
Much of that record came to the forefront of his confirmation hearing in 2009 as Republicans in the upper chamber criticized moves he made while serving as the U.S. attorney for D.C. Pro-gun groups lobbied hard against his confirmation, arguing he would strip people of their gun rights.
Last year, House Republicans led a successful vote placing Holder in contempt of Congress for refusing to hand over internal DOJ documents related to a botched gun-tracking case that oversaw the sale of nearly 2,000 firearms to criminals and might have contributed to the murder of a Border Patrol agent.
But for all the controversy that has swirled around Holder, the attorney general hasn’t touched the issue of gun control in any significant way in the Obama administration — until now.
Holder’s increasing involvement in the gun violence task force could be a signal that Obama is prepared to take executive action to restrict guns, a possibility that Biden raised on Wednesday.
“The president is going to act,” Biden said. “There are executive orders, executive action that can be taken. We haven't decided what that is yet, but we're compiling it all.”
The aggressive moves that Holder made as D.C.’s attorney indicate he would be a willing partner if Obama decides to wield the power of the administration against firearms.
Holder’s moves as D.C. attorney general resulted in the confiscation of thousands of illegal guns throughout the city as police presence was increased in high-crime neighborhoods and law enforcement officials were given broader search authority during traffic stops.
Holder also asked the D.C. City Council to make possessing an unregistered firearm a felony instead of a misdemeanor and raise the maximum penalty from one year to five years in jail.
Some of the 21 Republicans who voted against Holder’s confirmation four years ago — and several gun-rights groups that spent thousands of dollars attempting to block his nomination — highlighted Holder’s signing of an amicus brief in 2008 that supported D.C.’s ban on handguns as it was being considered by the Supreme Court in the D.C. v. Heller case. The court ultimately ruled D.C.’s ban unconstitutional.
Holder told senators at the time that while he recognized “that the Supreme Court has spoken,” he felt it had left some room for the government to consider other gun restrictions.
The NRA has opposed Holder every step of the way. The powerful group lobbied for senators to vote against his nomination, and last year scored how members voted on Holder’s criminal and civil contempt measures in the House.
Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) led the charge to place Holder in contempt of Congress for refusing to comply with a subpoena he issued as part of his investigation into “Fast and Furious.”
The DOJ inspector general ultimately cleared Holder of any wrongdoing in the case, but Issa has steadily pursued the civil lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia in the face of pleas from Democrats to dismiss the case, which could drag on for years.
Holder made a bevy of personnel changes after the failures of “Operation Fast and Furious” came to light, and he implemented new chain-of-command procedures within the DOJ and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), which oversaw the failed operation.
But neither he nor President Obama made any moves to tighten gun laws as a result of the botched operation, disappointing House Democrats who urged the White House to use the failed mission as a springboard toward tightening gun trafficking laws and expanding the ATF’s investigative abilities.
Now, with Holder taking a central seat at the Biden group’s table, those proposals might be back in play.
— Amie Parnes contributed to this story.