The Obama administration is in talks this week with the man who could replace the current head of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), a man gun-rights groups have railed against as being hostile to their cause.
Andrew Traver was nominated in November by President Barack Obama to become ATF director, but the National Rifle Association has stalled his appointment, citing his anti-gun rights stance.
Traver, who now heads the ATF’s Chicago field office, is to meet Attorney General Eric Holder and top Justice Department officials this week.
Traver’s visit was seen at the Capitol as the sign that Kenneth Melson, the acting director of the ATF, will be stepping down in the wake of the “Fast and Furious” gun-running scheme in which weapons were sold to Mexico’s drug cartels.
Melson, who has been acting director since April 2009, is likely to resign within the next couple of days, says CNN.
Officially, the White House says it is premature to assume that Traver’s arrival in Washington means that Melson is out, but The Wall Street Journal reports that sources say Obama and his top advisers are sorting out whether to name Traver as acting director right away or name another chief while Traver goes through the Senate confirmation process.
Traver, originally from Naperville, Ill., is a favorite of the gun-control lobby, which holds the ATF has not controlled the United States' $28 billion firearms business since it lost a formal head in 2006. It has struggled with interim directors since.
But the fact that Traver heads the ATF office in Chicago, a city without gun shops, does not sit well with the NRA and other gun-rights groups, The Christian Science Monitor
They say Traver is involved with the pro-gun control International Association of Chiefs of Police and he was an adviser to an antigun-violence conference that Chicago Mayor Richard Daley attended.
But before Traver goes through what is expected to be a tough confirmation, Melson is likely to resign in what is one of the worst scandals in the ATF’s history.
Under Operation Fast and Furious and its sister program Project Gunrunner, about 2,000 weapons were sold to so-called straw buyers, who in turn sold them to the cartels. The idea was that it would allow the ATF to trace the weapons and discover who was selling them on.
But the plan went disastrously wrong, and the weapons have been used in at least 150 shootings. The ATF now admits it lost track of two-thirds of the guns.
The controversy came to a head in December when Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry was murdered in Arizona and two weapons discovered at the scene were found to have been part of Project Gunrunner.
Obama has acknowledged that the plan was flawed. “There may be a situation here in which a serious mistake was made. If that's the case then we'll find out and we'll hold somebody accountable,” he said in March. Obama said he had no prior knowledge of the operation.
Last week, Iowa Republican Sen. Charles Grassley called for an independent investigation into the operation and called for heads to roll.
Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., said the operation “looks an awful lot like Iran-Contra,” the scandal that put a shadow over Ronald Reagan’s presidency, during congressional hearings he chaired.
During those hearings, John Casa, an agent at the ATF’s Phoenix Field office, called the program “a colossal failure of leadership.” He said every time there was a shooting in Arizona, including the one that killed six and seriously injured Democratic U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, agents worried that guns from the operations could have been involved.
“This happened time and time again,” he testified.
Another agent, John Dodson, told lawmakers, "I cannot begin to think of how the risk of letting guns fall into the hands of known criminals could possibly advance any legitimate law enforcement interest. I hope the committee will receive a better explanation than I."
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