Sen. Durbin pressures gun lobby with threat to move ATF authority to FBI

The No. 2 Democrat in the Senate is readying legislation aimed at pressuring the gun lobby to endorse the confirmation of a permanent Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) director. 

The bill being crafted by Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) would allow for the ATF’s functions to be shifted to another agency, such as the FBI, effectively bypassing the need for the Senate to confirm a director of the embattled bureau. 

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 “It strikes me that if the Senate has not confirmed the head of an agency as important as this, after a certain period of time, that we should transfer the jurisdiction of that agency to the FBI for example, which has a long-term director,” Durbin told The Hill.  

The National Rifle Association (NRA) has successfully lobbied Congress to block every presidential pick to head the ATF since 2006. The group argues that a permanent director could lead to more severe enforcement of firearm laws. 

President Obama’s nominee to fill the position, ATF acting Director B. Todd Jones, is currently making his way through confirmation proceedings in the Senate Judiciary Committee but has come up against stiff Republican opposition. 

In response, Durbin said he is drawing up a bill that would repeal an appropriations rider banning the attorney general from transferring the ATF’s jurisdiction to another agency. The ATF currently falls under the Justice Department’s jurisdiction. 

If the measure became law and the ATF’s authority was transferred to the FBI, a permanent director could be chosen by the director of the FBI and would not have to go through the Senate’s confirmation process. 

Obama is expected to nominate James Comey to take over as head of the FBI when current Director Robert Mueller’s term expires in September. The FBI director is subject to Senate confirmation. 

Comey, who served as deputy attorney general under former President George W. Bush, has received a wide range of bipartisan support from senators and is expected to have a much easier confirmation process than any ATF director, in part because the term lasts for 10 years, which spans multiple presidencies. 

Obama nominated Jones, who is also the U.S. Attorney for Minnesota, to head up the ATF as part of his 23 proposals aimed at strengthening the nation’s gun laws in the wake of the Sandy Hook school shooting, which killed 20 children and six adults. 

Jones told senators earlier this month that the lack of permanent leadership at the ATF has not only had an adverse effect on morale within the agency but has also hampered its ability to be as effective as possible.

“It does impact morale,” Jones testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee. “I think it’s also a fundamental question of good government because, as you mentioned, being a confirmed appointee does carry a certain amount of gravitas. 

“You can be a more effective advocate for resources so that you can be accountable to this body, and to the organization that you work with — in this case the Department of Justice. Decisiveness is a critical quality for anyone who is in a leadership position.”

Last week, Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), the panel’s ranking member, spurred the committee to launch a staff-led investigation of two complaints filed with the Justice Department’s Office of Special Counsel accusing Jones of mismanagement and retaliation in his position as U.S. attorney. 

The office has dismissed the mismanagement complaint and notified the committee that Jones has entered into mediation on the retaliation charge. 

The Senate began overseeing the confirmation of an ATF director in 2006 when Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.) — the House Judiciary Committee chairman at the time — successfully inserted a provision into a reauthorization measure of the Patriot Act. The move gave senators the power to block the president’s nomination for the position and use it as a bargaining tool. 

Durbin’s bill, which he is hoping to introduce before the August recess, has the backing of New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s group Mayors Against Illegal Guns. The group has dumped millions of dollars into a campaign aimed at combating the NRA’s powerful influence, targeting senators who voted against a comprehensive background check bill earlier this year. 

The group’s director, Mark Glaze, told The Hill he hopes Durbin’s bill will prompt the NRA and other gun lobby organizations to drop their objections to Jones’s nomination. 

“The ATF director is a Senate-confirmed position because that’s the way the NRA wanted it, and it’s been an unmitigated disaster,” Glaze said. 

“There’s no credible argument against confirming Jones, but there were no credible arguments against confirming the last two nominees. Maybe Durbin can supply the incentive for a more rational debate.”

Some of the bill’s details are still being worked through, such as whether the ATF would continue to exist as an agency and simply fall under the jurisdiction of another agency head’s purview, or whether all of the ATF’s functions — in name and action — would be transferred to the other agency as well. 

The NRA did not respond to requests for comment.