By Mike Lillis - 03/05/11 11:00 AM EST
More than 40 House Democrats are calling on President Obama to approve new rules granting federal regulators more authority to crack down on gun trafficking to Mexico.
The request comes at an unfortunate time for the lawmakers, however, as the Department of Justice (DOJ) has just launched a probe into reports that hundreds of guns were lost amid a federal sting designed to track firearms by letting known smugglers buy them with impunity.
In a letter to Obama on Thursday, the Democrats attacked that decision.
"The Mexican drug cartels are killing people at a staggering rate … and long guns are widely known as the cartels' weapon of choice," the lawmakers wrote. "With the death toll rising and the use of a very narrow group of long guns increasing, the criteria for 'emergency implementation' should have been easily satisfied."
The lawmakers are asking Obama to grant ATF the new authority "as quickly as possible" to provide law enforcers "just one more tool" to fight gun trafficking.
The letter was spearheaded by Reps. Judy Chu (D-Calif.), Raul Grivalja (D-Ariz.) and Mike Quigley (D-Ill.). Thirty-nine additional Democrats endorsed the letter, including Reps. John Conyers (Mich.), the ranking member of the House Judiciary Committee, and Howard Berman (Calif.), senior Democrat on the Foreign Affairs panel. A similar letter sent in January had 12 signatures.
“The level of violence in Mexico is unacceptable, and has increased exponentially," Chu said in a statement. "Time is of the essence."
More than 30,000 people have been killed in Mexican drug violence since President Felipe Calderon launched a war on the cartels in 2006. Because of Mexico's strict gun laws, cartel leaders have made habit of buying many of their weapons from the U.S., where there's no limit to the number of firearms a person can purchase at a time. A 2009 report from the Government Accountability Office found that roughly 20,000 of the guns confiscated from the Mexican cartels between 2004 and 2008 originated in the U.S.
Advocates for tougher gun laws say the trend puts the U.S. in the odd position of abetting the same drug cartels it's vowed to fight.
"We are contributing to the disintegrating of the country to the south of our border," Paul Helmke, president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, said last month on Capitol Hill. "We've got a serious problem [and] the ATF doesn't have the authority to solve it."
Under the ATF's proposal, gun dealers in the four Mexican border states – Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California – would have to report sales of two or more long guns to the same buyer within five work days. A similar mandate has applied to handguns nationwide since 1968.
The public comment period for the proposal ended Feb. 15. After ATF wades through the comments, it will submit a final proposal to the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB), which then has 30 days to make a determination.
Backed by the gun lobby, a number of House lawmakers are trying to make OMB's decision irrelevant. The Republican proposal to fund the government through year's end – which passed the House last month – includes an amendment to bar the government from requiring gun dealers to report bulk purchases of long guns.
Rep. Dan Boren (D-Okla.), who sponsored the provision, said it will "protect the Second Amendment rights of law-abiding citizens."
Calderon has repeatedly asked U.S. policymakers to crack down on the flow of weapons to Mexico – most recently this week during a high-profile visit to the White House. Obama, for his part, has vowed to do just that.
"I reiterated that the United States accepts our shared responsibility for the drug violence," Obama said Thursday during a joint press conference after his meeting with Calderon. "So to combat the southbound flow of guns and money, we are screening all southbound rail cargo, seizing many more guns bound for Mexico and we are putting more gun runners behind bars."
In an embarrassing episode, however, reports emerged Thursday that an ATF program to fight gun runners by allowing them to run guns might have backfired.
Operation Fast and Furious put firearms into the hands of known smugglers in order to track them to the drug cartels, according to numerous reports. Hundreds of those firearms have gone missing, the reports indicate, and several have been linked indirectly to the murder of Border Patrol agent Brian Terry, who was killed in a December firefight in Arizona.
The episode hasn't escaped Sen. Charles Grassley (Iowa), senior Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, who's vowing a congressional investigation.
"Dismantling the Mexican drug cartels is a worthy goal," Grassley wrote in a March 3 letter to Attorney General Eric Holder. "However, asking cooperating gun dealers to arm cartels and bandits without control of the weapons or knowledge of their whereabouts is an extremely risky strategy.
"Congress," Grassley added, "needs to get to the bottom of this."
The ATF has launched its own internal probe.