MILWAUKEE -- The White House budget office has delivered a blow to the federal agency charged with regulating gun stores, rejecting its emergency request designed to slow gun trafficking into Mexico.
The Office of Management and Budget notified the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives last week that its request to require gun stores in four border states to report the multiple sales of certain long guns favored by Mexican cartels did not constitute an emergency under the law.
The move came four days after 17 U.S. senators wrote to the budget office criticizing the proposal. The letter was obtained Tuesday by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
"This proposed policy change is a 'solution' looking for a problem and unfounded and misguided protests by foreign governments should not lead to regulatory actions not based on statutory authority," says the letter, signed by Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, and other Republicans.
ATF officials call the flow of guns from U.S. gun stores into the hands of cartels an emergency. In a recent case, prosecutors say, straw buyers purchased as many as 40 AK-47s at a time, headed for Mexico.
The budget office did not completely deny the request. It said the agency can seek the rule change under normal reporting requirements, which allows for 60 days of public comment before a rule is enacted. The ruling means the agency cannot quickly implement the rule -- a top priority of the agency.
The move by the White House further indicates a lack of support by President Barack Obama and Congress for the often-embattled agency.
The ATF's acting director, Kenneth Melson, recently told the Journal Sentinel the agency was focused on getting the emergency rule approved, even as other concerns went unaddressed, such as trying to keep revoked gun dealers from remaining close to gun-dealing operations.
The ATF has been careful in picking its fights as its leadership remains in flux. The agency has been without a permanent director for more than four years.
The Journal Sentinel reported in December the ATF rarely revokes the licenses of lawbreaking gun dealers and, when it does, stores can easily beat the system by having a relative, friend or employee pull a fresh license. The newspaper found more than 50 stores in 20 states over the past six years where that happened and 34 more stores with indications a revoked license holder remains connected to a gun-dealing operation.
The National Rifle Association and others have been vocal in opposition to the ATF's long-gun reporting request. A spokeswoman said the proposed rule was not necessary and would inconvenience law-abiding people. Thirty-four members of the House also oppose the ATF proposal, according to the senators' letter, which did not name the House members.
Melson said the proposed form was intended to tip law enforcement to possible gun trafficking and could be completed by customers in about 10 minutes.
The proposed rule would apply only to semiautomatic long guns greater than .22-caliber that can accept a detachable ammunition magazine. Stores in Texas, Arizona, New Mexico and California would be covered. It would run on a test basis for a year, Melson said.
The proposed rule is fashioned after a long-standing law that requires all gun stores to report any time more than one handgun is purchased by the same person in five days.
The senators' letter says if Congress wanted to allow reporting of multiple long-gun sales, it would have put it in the law.
"This proposal can be characterized as an end-run around Congress on a significant issue that affects the fundamental constitutional rights of our citizens," the letter says.
The agency asked the White House to approve the rule on an emergency basis by early January.
Budget office spokeswoman Meg Reilly said, "The Administration decided last week that this notice of information collection should move forward through the standard review process to provide adequate time for the public to weigh in. Our objective is to ensure that any information collection in this area is as informed and effective as possible -- and public comment is critical to that outcome."
The ATF isn't backing off its push for the rule change. Spokesman Scot Thomasson said, "The reporting requirement, just like the process we use in our efforts against illegal handgun trafficking, is a critical investigative tool which allows ATF to proactively disrupt illegal firearms trafficking before violent crimes are committed."
New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, head of the Mayors Against Illegal Guns, blasted the White House for its decision.
"The White House decided that the illegal trafficking of thousands of semiautomatic assault rifles from the U.S. to Mexico is not an emergency," Bloomberg said. "Our coalition of over 550 mayors strongly disagrees," Bloomberg said. "ATF recognizes the emergency but we need the White House to give the agency the support it needs do its job effectively."
If the White House does allow the ATF to implement the rule, one way for Congress to stop it would be through the budget bill. In the past, Congress limited ATF's release of crime gun trace information and its regulation of gun stores through ATF's appropriations bill.
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