After fierce resistance from the gun lobby and its allies in Congress, Attorney General Eric Holder has dialed back talk about reimposing a federal assault weapons ban to help curb the spiraling violence in Mexico.
As much as 90 percent of the assault weapons and other guns used by Mexican drug cartels are coming from the United States, fueling drug-related violence that is believed to have killed more than 7,000 people since January 2008, according to estimates by Mexican and U.S. law enforcement officials. But the political obstacles to addressing the U.S.-to-Mexico weapons flow are dramatically underscored by Holder's experience in just the last few weeks.
Speaking at a Feb. 25 news conference announcing a roundup of Mexican cartel members in the United States, Holder endorsed reinstituting the ban on assault weapons—a position that President Obama himself supported during last year's campaign. A federal ban on high-powered, semi-automatic assault weapons, originally passed by Congress in 1994, expired five years ago.
"There are just a few gun-related changes that we would like to make, and among them would be to reinstitute the ban on the sale of assault weapons," Holder said in response to a question from a Mexican reporter. "I think that will have a positive impact in Mexico at a minimum." Holder then ducked a follow-up question about whether he expected Congress to act on a renewed ban this year, saying, "I'm not sure exactly what the sequencing will be" on legislative issues that the Obama administration presses on Capitol Hill.
But his comments roused the gun lobby. The National Rifle Association quickly sent out "action alerts" to its members. Sixty-five House Democrats signed a letter saying they would oppose any new ban—as did Montana's two Democratic senators, Max Baucus and Jon Tester. "Senators to Attorney General Holder: Stay Away From Our Guns," read a press release sent out by Baucus's office. In addition, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid both shot down the idea that Congress would take up any new assault weapons ban this year.
When Holder was asked about the assault weapons issue again at another press conference on March 25, he steered away from even mentioning a new weapons ban. "Well, I mean, I think what we're going to do is try to, obviously, enforce the laws that we have on the books," Holder said, adding that he planned to discuss the flow of illegal arms with "our Mexican counterparts" during an upcoming trip to Mexico.
Holder's about-face was no accident. White House officials instructed the attorney general to tone down any further talk about assault weapons in order not to complicate the president's legislative agenda on Capitol Hill, according to administration and congressional sources who, like others quoted in this story, asked not to be named talking about internal deliberations. (An assault weapons ban was also conspicuously off the table when the Obama administraton unveiled new proposals to combat Mexican cartel violence.) "We've been told to lay low," a Democratic congressional aide said he was told when he raised the issue of a new assault weapons ban with a Justice Department official.
A senior Justice Department official said that Holder was trying to signal that he wasn't expecting immediate congressional action when he sidestepped the question about timing at the original Feb. 25 news conference. But the NRA was only too happy to take credit for the attorney general's new tone.
After Holder made his first comments about a ban, the NRA started "getting out the word—this is going to be a battle, they're coming," said Wayne LaPierre, executive vice president and CEO of the NRA. As a result, LaPierre said, the attorney general "ran into a stonewall on Capitol Hill." It's no secret, moreover, that much of the opposition came from Democrats, including the party's leadership. During the early 1990s, congressional Democratic leaders aggressively pushed gun-control legislation—and suffered crushing setbacks in the polls starting with the 1994 Republican takeover of Congress. "They've learned the history of what happened the last time," said LaPierre.
But that does leave an awkward situation for Holder and the White House. The attorney general flies to Mexico City on April 1 to talk about steps the United States can take to deal with cartel violence—and the Mexicans are adamant about reimposing a weapons ban. Meanwhile, the White House still lists a new assault weapons ban as one of the president's official positions on its Web site (scroll down to the "Urban Policy" section).
Given that Obama rarely talked about assault weapons during the campaign and has said not a word about the subject since becoming president, should it still be there? "There has been no change in position—the president supports the 2nd amendment, he respects the tradition of gun ownership in this country, and he believes that we can take common sense steps to keep our streets safe," said White House spokesman Ben LaBolt.