WASHINGTON -- The Obama administration implemented its most aggressive and controversial gun measure to date Monday, ordering dealers in four Southwestern states to report multiple sales of semiautomatic rifles to the federal firearms bureau.
The rule, adamantly opposed by the National Rifle Association and many members of Congress, takes effect immediately and is meant to stem gunrunning to violent Mexican drug gangs. It requires about 8,500 dealers operating in the border states of California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas to alert authorities when a person buys within five days two or more semiautomatic rifles greater than .22 caliber with detachable magazines.
Deputy Attorney General James Cole said the rule will help the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives "detect and disrupt the illegal weapons trafficking networks responsible for diverting firearms from lawful commerce to criminals and criminal organizations."
The administration has been loath to take on the gun lobby, and one anti-gun group, the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, has given Mr. Obama a failing grade on gun violence. But pro-gun activists seized on the decision, made by the White House Office of Management and Budget, to accuse the administration of trying to take attention away from a bungled ATF anti-smuggling operation.
Congress is investigating the ATF operation, code-named Fast and Furious, which aimed to take down cartels trading in drugs and guns. ATF leaders now admit that they made some mistakes in their strategy of letting obvious straw buyers continue to make purchases once they had been tagged as suspected gunrunners for Mexican cartels.
The Washington Post reported in February that two guns linked to the Fast and Furious investigation were found at the scene of the killing of a Border Patrol agent.
Many current and former ATF agents said that if the new reporting rule had already been in place, it might have deterred the types of mistakes made in Fast and Furious. The ATF estimates that the rule will generate as many as 18,000 reports annually, which then are to be used as leads for agents on the lookout for straw purchasers -- people who claim to be true buyers of weapons when they actually are purchasing them for others. Without the rule, the ATF must rely on those gun dealers who agree to cooperate -- something they managed in Fast and Furious.
"This is exactly what ATF agents on the ground told Congress -- that reporting multiple sales of military-grade assault weapons is a crucial tool to identify and disrupt Mexican drug cartels engaged in gun trafficking," said Maryland Rep. Elijah Cumming, the House Oversight Committee's top Democrat.
Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, said the rule is a distraction from the ATF's errors and simply imposes on dealers "burdensome reporting requirements."
But administration officials said the new rule is similar to one in place for years: All U.S. gun dealers must report a buyer's purchase of two or more handguns in a five-day period. The information collected under both rules is to be destroyed after two years if it doesn't lead to a trafficking investigation, a Justice Department spokeswoman said.