By Mike Lillis - 06/26/12 09:32 PM EDT
The guns linked to the botched "Fast and Furious" gun-walking program did not kill U.S. Border Patrol agent Brian Terry, Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said Tuesday — people did.
The comments from the Democratic whip, a long-time supporter of tougher gun laws, borrowed the common refrain from arms lobbyists and other hard-line gun-rights advocates that beefing up the nation's gun laws is a misdirected approach to fighting gun violence.
Hoyer pushed back Tuesday, wondering why – if people, not guns, kill people – Republicans are so focused on the guns surrounding Terry's murder and not the criminals who used them.
"The premise is that somehow letting these guns go across the border resulted in this tragic death," Hoyer told reporters in the Capitol. "[But] people kill people, not guns, I'm told on a regular basis.
"And controlling guns – whether it's assault weapons or others – would not solve the problem, I am told by some," he added, referring to gun-reform critics. "So such legislation is not necessary because it is people who kill people. I hope you see the contradiction in the positions being taken.
"The fact of the matter is this life was tragically lost because there are some criminals on both sides of the border who facilitate violent criminal behavior," Hoyer said.
Under the Fast and Furious operation, law enforcers at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) allowed known straw purchasers to buy guns for arms traffickers in order to track them to Mexican cartels. But officials lost track of hundreds of the guns, and two firearms sold under the program surfaced at the site of Terry's murder, though they were never linked directly to his death.
Republicans pounced, with Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, launching an exhaustive probe that's spanned almost a year and a half. Accusing Holder of withholding documents related to the investigation, Issa last week staged a successful contempt vote against Holder in the committee, and GOP leaders are set to follow suit on the House floor on Thursday.
"That’s all we are looking for, is documents," Issa told "Fox News Sunday" over the weekend.
But even as they've focused the blame for Terry's death on the Obama administration and its ill-conceived program, GOP leaders have simultaneously ignored the calls from law enforcers for Congress to grant them more authority to fight gun trafficking and drug smuggling on the border. Indeed, when an ATF special agent told the Oversight panel last June that straw purchasers should suffer stiffer penalties to discourage gun trafficking, Issa stepped in to silence him.
"We're not here to talk about proposed gun legislation," Issa said.
Such comments haven't been overlooked by Democrats, who are accusing Republicans of squandering a chance to use Terry's death to improve safety for other law enforcers like him.
"When the whistleblowers came before us, we asked them, 'What can we do?'" Rep. Elijah Cummings (Md.), senior Democrat on the House Oversight panel, said Tuesday. "And they were very clear. They said, 'We want you to deal with the gun laws.' … We didn't bring it up. They brought it up.
"Everybody on that committee [is] very concerned about the death of Brian Terry," Cummings added. "That's why we wanted to not get sidetracked [by the contempt proceedings]."
Issa on Sunday fueled the political nature of the debate over Fast and Furious, suggesting he has evidence the Obama administration hoped to use the program to promote a ban on assault weapons.
"We have email from people involved in this that are talking about using what they’re finding here to support the — basically, assault weapons ban," Issa told ABC's "This Week."
Cummings said the claim is untrue, and Hoyer was quick to pile on.
"If he has those documents," Hoyer said, "he ought to show them to people."