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ATF nominee is trapped in D.C. crossfire

Gun-rights advocates, armed with new Senate power to stall the bid, protest bureau action against dealers.

February 25, 2008|Richard B. Schmitt | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — President Bush has accused Senate Democrats of unfairly holding up scores of appointments he has made to the federal bench and other senior government positions. The nominees, many of whom have been awaiting Senate confirmation for months, are being treated like "political pawns," Bush said earlier this month.

Michael J. Sullivan, the president's choice to head the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, is one of them. But his problems aren't with Democrats.

Sullivan, a U.S. attorney from Massachusetts, was appointed by Bush to head the ATF nearly a year ago, making him one of the president's longer-serving stalled nominees. The Senate Judiciary Committee approved his nomination in November, but the next month three Republicans used a parliamentary maneuver to put his confirmation on ice.

The opposition, led by gun-rights champions including Sen. Larry E. Craig (R-Idaho), is part of a long dispute between the ATF and gun dealers. The lawmakers think the agency has been overzealous in enforcing requirements that dealers keep detailed gun-sale records.

The lawmakers say they have decided to hold Sullivan's nomination hostage until he promises that the agency will back off.

The holdup shows that gun-rights supporters have some powerful allies on Capitol Hill. Gun owners have long complained that the ATF is too aggressive. The National Rifle Assn. famously branded agents "jackbooted thugs" in a fundraising missive in the mid-1990s.

But there wasn't a lot the industry could do about it until two years ago, when Congress, partly at the behest of gun-rights groups, decided to make the ATF director subject to Senate confirmation. Sullivan is the first nominee since that law was passed.

"This is all part of a long story of the gun lobby and its supporters trying to intimidate ATF," said Dennis Henigan, legal director of the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence. "They are trying to send a message to ATF that when it does try to go after dealers . . . it faces retaliation in the form of this director being held up."

Gun-rights advocates say the ATF has used the record-keeping laws, which date to the mid-1980s, to revoke the licenses of many dealers for paperwork violations and innocent errors.

Under Bush -- who supports gun owners' rights but has also made it a priority to get tough on crime -- revocations of federal gun-dealing licenses have increased, from 22 in 2002 to 116 in 2006, according to ATF data obtained by the Brady Center. Nationally, about 70,000 dealers have federal gun licenses.

The ATF has set "an impossible standard" for gun dealers, according to Sen. David Vitter (R-La.). Vitter, who has corresponded with Sullivan about his concerns, says the nominee "exhibits a lack of willingness to address these problems."

Dan Whiting, a spokesman for Craig, said his boss was concerned that the ATF was driving law-abiding small retailers out of business. "There are regulations for firearms for a reason. We are OK with that. But the agency should be in the business of helping legitimate dealers comply with the law and not just penalizing them for the smallest infractions," Whiting said.

One of the most vocal gun dealers in the debate is Ryan Horsley of Twin Falls, Idaho. He contacted Craig, GOP Sen. Michael D. Crapo and other members of his state's congressional delegation after the ATF moved to revoke his license in February 2006.

Red's Trading Post was founded by Horsley's great-grandfather in the 1930s and is Idaho's oldest gun dealership. A series of audits found that he had not properly documented some gun sales. Horsley says the violations were innocent, most of them clerical.

After the ATF rejected his appeals, he began posting on his Red’s Trading Post blog to draw attention to dealers' problems. He criticizes Sullivan on the blog, saying the nominee is supported by "anti-gun organizations."

Sullivan has "continued to just pick off a lot of the dealers in the country," Horsley said in an interview. His license dispute with the ATF is now before a federal judge.

Gun-control groups say the laws help investigators trace guns used to commit crimes, as well as to identify and prosecute individuals who possess firearms illegally. They also perceive hypocrisy in the opposition to strict enforcement, noting that gun-rights groups often argue against new gun laws by saying the government should enforce existing laws instead.

A tough enforcer is what President Bush was getting when he tapped Sullivan, 53, to be the acting ATF director in August 2006 and then nominated him to be the permanent head in March 2007. As U.S. attorney, Sullivan has a reputation as a law-and-order man; he's been nicknamed "Maximum Mike" in the Boston press.

He declined to be interviewed for this story.

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