Politics & Policy

Traver Off Target

Obama’s ATF pick exemplifies what is wrong with U.S. law enforcement.

Pres. Barack Obama has nominated Andrew Traver, an episodically dishonest campaigner against Americans’ right to keep and bear arms, to be head of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms. ATF is arguably the least competent of our major federal law-enforcement agencies and unquestionably the least impressive of them. The bureau probably ought to be dissolved and its functions dispersed among other agencies before it does more harm to the republic than it already has; it certainly should not be entrusted to a man with documented hostility toward Americans’ ancient constitutional rights and a remarkably backward view of the role firearms play in American criminal violence.

Agent Traver has lent his name and his agency’s clout to the usual range of anti-gun causes, including repealing the Tiahrt Amendment, which restricts the use of the ATF’s firearms database to criminal investigations, forcing gun-grabbers and class-action lawyers to gather their own data. (The nerve.) Also among Mr. Traver’s sins, which inevitably have been catalogued by the NRA, was using the reliably gullible media to mislead the public about the nature of the firearms covered by the now-expired “assault weapons” ban.

Agent Traver, at that time in charge of the ATF’s Chicago office, made exaggerated claims about the nature and prevalence of the “assault weapons” used by criminals in Chicago, and then, for the benefit of all those voters out there in TV-land, armed an NBC reporter with a machine gun — a fully automatic AK-47, to be exact — and watched as she fecklessly sprayed bullets about for the camera, missing everything she aimed at. As Agent Traver knew full well, the assault-weapons ban had not one thing to do with fully automatic weapons like the AK-47, which are very tightly regulated under other federal laws. The assault-weapons ban dealt with semiautomatic weapons — i.e., pull the trigger once, one bullet is fired, pull the trigger again, another bullet is fired, etc. — but those do not lend themselves as easily to flights of high rhetoric, and are not nearly as dramatic on television, as machine guns. Having spent some time observing the ATF’s for-the-cameras shenanigans at the Branch Davidian cult compound in Waco, Texas, I know that the bureau loves nothing better than drama.

Mr. Traver’s forked-tongue performance in that sloppy NBC story was typical: The popular-disarmament gang has long attempted to conflate semiautomatic weapons and machine guns in the public mind, though it was unusual, almost refreshing, to see a federal law-enforcement agent engaged in so flagrant and undisguised a display of dishonesty. Most of the so-called assault weapons are the ballistic equivalent of sheep in wolves’ clothing; they’re basically scary-looking squirrel guns. The greatest part of them are .223-caliber semiautomatic rifles, which is to say that they are largely indistinguishable from the little .22-caliber plinkers boys have been knocking cans off of fence posts with for generations. The .223 is too small to be used legally for deer hunting in most of the country — these paramilitary terrors being insufficient to bring down Bambi cleanly. Notable, that: The gun-grabbers always insist that they do not want to restrict hunters’ access to legitimate sporting guns, but a North American hunter stalking grizzly bears or moose frequently will be armed with a rifle packing a far more powerful pop than that of those carried by most of the world’s infantrymen.

All of which is rather beside the point, since rifles as a category, from Granddad’s deerslayer to Uncle Nasty’s assault rifle, are used only rarely in crimes. Even for a gangster in sagging jeans, it’s hard to walk around casually with Elmer Fudd’s blunderbuss in your shenanigans, and those .50-caliber competition-grade rifles they’re soiling themselves over in California go for about 15 grand, putting them out of the financial range of Joe Crackhead. Rifles just aren’t where the action usually is, crime-wise.

Which is not beside the point. What Traver and those philosophically aligned with him are engaged in is the opposite of law enforcement. We might call their business anti-policing, inasmuch as they seek to restrict the actions of law-abiding citizens — lawful gun owners, licensed firearms dealers — while largely leaving actual criminals untouched. If that sounds like I am overstating my case, consider the evidence.

Rifles are rarely used in crimes, but rarely isn’t never. A rifle, widely (and wrongly) reported to be an AK-47, was used in a terrible crime mentioned in the same NBC story in which Traver peddled his duplicitous firearms flim-flam: the shooting of 14-year-old Starkesia Reed by a murderous, lovelorn gangster named Carail Weeks. Weeks was upset that his ex-girlfriend had taken up with another man and randomly shot up his rival’s block. (Really, gangsters should be made of sterner stuff.) One of the bullets hit Miss Reed, who was watching the mayhem through her living-room window, in the head. She died.

The Weeks case is interesting for the light it sheds on “straw purchases,” meaning the purchase of firearms by buyers with clean records on behalf of felons or others who are legally ineligible to buy them. Mr. Weeks did not avail himself of the services of a straw purchaser; he bought his guns with a falsified Indiana identification card because he himself was under investigation for being a straw purchaser, a gun bought by him having been found to have been used in an armed robbery. You will not be surprised to learn that this was not Weeks’s first encounter with the law. And yet he was out and about, with nobody keeping an eye on him, though thousands of government employees are deployed to monitor the actions of law-abiding, federally licensed firearms retailers. That is what I mean by anti-policing.

The truth is that law enforcement is fundamentally unserious about prosecuting straw purchasers, and about keeping guns out of the hands of criminals broadly speaking. Doing so is, to put it bluntly, too much work for a unionized American government work force, whose idea of a good anti-gun program is the buyback: offering up taxpayers’ dollars in the hopes that criminals will bring the guns to them. (Way to work that shoe-leather, Joe Friday.) From the police’s point of view, criminals are an inconsiderate bunch: no fixed address, very little record keeping, no scheduled hours of operation, etc. Criminals do not keep appointments or offer even minimal cooperation. It is a lot of work keeping tabs on a Carail Weeks, or on an Eric DeShawn Floyd, a felon with at least 17 priors on his rap sheet who was involved in the fatal shooting of Philadelphia police sergeant Stephen Liczbinski during a botched bank robbery. (I wrote about the case here.) It’s a real challenge. Some cops are heroes; 100 percent of them are government employees.

Which is why Traver and the other gun-control types have focused their attention instead on gun dealers, provoking sufficient controversy to distract the public from such uncomfortable questions as: “Why exactly was a felon with a 17-count criminal history walking abroad to rob and murder?”A couple of weeks ago, I was in a three-way debate with Eliot Spitzer and Paterson, N.J., mayor Jeff Jones, both of whom are fixated on the alleged culpability of gun retailers in our urban disorder. Both held that certain disreputable gun dealers are disproportionately responsible for the gun-related crime in places like Paterson, which is as close to a textbook case of universal municipal institutional failure as one is apt to find.

The indictment usually reads: “Four or five wicked gun dealers are responsible for a very large share of the guns recovered in crimes in City X.” The dealers are almost always out of state, and City X is almost always a city with a serious crime problem in spite of its state’s strict gun-control laws. It is kind of a dumb argument: Most non-Texas/non-Wyoming metropolitan areas have four or five big firearms vendors; criminals will if necessary cross a state line to buy guns, but they will not usually go needlessly far out of their way. So Chicago’s criminals go gun shopping in nearby Indiana towns and Jersey’s denizens go shopping in Pennsylvania, where in the nearest city they find a limited selection of gun shops. Not exactly a mystery how and why that happens. But the Spitzer-Jones axis is convinced that the retailers are a big part of the problem.

At least, that’s what they say. I do not really believe that they really believe what they say they believe. The truth is that all these lavishly recompensed and richly pensioned cops and lawyers on our public payrolls have neither the will nor the wit to keep up with the most dangerous and dedicated sort of criminals, for the reasons catalogued above. Criminals are a pain in the butt by definition. Gun dealers, on the other hand, largely are law-abiding citizens by definition. (Try getting a dealer’s license if you’ve got a criminal record.) Gun dealers keep lavishly detailed records. They usually operate out of a fixed place of business and keep regular business hours. They will accept and keep an appointment, and most of them are quite keen on cooperating with law-enforcement authorities on all matters related to their business. They pay taxes and have phone numbers in the Yellow Pages. And that is why the Eliot Spitzers and Mayor Joneses of the world are coming down on them: because it is convenient to do so.

Which is to say, we treat law-abiding citizens like criminals because they are law-abiding citizens, not criminals. It is hard to keep up with the Weekses and Floyds and sundry trash of this world, but it is really easy to get law-abiding citizens to abide by the law. They sort of do it all on their own. That is the kind of law enforcement that you can execute with a donut in one hand and a BlackBerry in the other, from a sedentary position, which is the preferred position of the publicly employed. And when you want to look like you’re doing something, you can always pass some more laws and watch with great satisfaction as law-abiding citizens abide them.

Notice that the current push against “straw purchases” does not focus on straw purchasers, whose actions already are against the law. Rather, it imposes further restrictions on law-abiding citizens, limiting the number of guns they can buy over a given period of time. Gun retailers, no doubt, would be deputized into enforcing that law and prosecuted if they should prove less than cooperative: more law-abiding citizens abiding the law.

We rarely prosecute actual straw purchasers. One reason is that it is a lot of work to find them, gather evidence, build a case, etc. It is kind of a hard crime to prove. The other reason is that straw buyers do not usually look like the right kind of villains — wrong profile. They are not usually shady guys in trenchcoats who go down to Joe-Bob’s Ammo-Mart and Nazi Memorabilia Emporium in East Hickinstick and load up one of those wobbly-wheeled grocery carts with bristling machine guns to be handed out like lollipops down at the Legion of Doom secret lair and clubhouse. More typically, the straw buyer is some gangster’s daffy girlfriend, low-IQ kid brother, or other acquaintance with a clean record.

Gangsters’ girlfriends are pretty seldom prosecuted as straw purchasers, particularly if they have young children. Instead, these criminals are treated as though they are victims of a crime, offered therapy and counseling and various social services. How do we know they are victims? Obviously, the fact that they have committed a crime cries to the very heavens that they have been forced into doing so by their gangster beaux. So, at the precise moment we are treating law-abiding citizens like criminals because they are law-abiding citizens and not criminals, we are treating actual gun-trafficking criminals like victims because they are criminals and not law-abiding citizens. Behold, anti-policing. We might actually dissuade some straw purchasers if we put these freelance gun traffickers in an orange jumpsuit for 20 years as an example, but then we’d be treating criminals like criminals, which apparently runs contrary to our current national crime-fighting strategy.

Agent Traver is, in no small way, a party to this foolishness, and is prone to playing dirty with the facts to boot. If he cannot explain this sensibly — and I do not think that he can — then President Obama should look for somebody who can. (Good luck with that.) Either way, the president is picking a gun fight that Democrats already have lost and lost and lost and lost, and stand ready to lose again.

— Kevin D. Williamson is deputy managing editor of National Review and author of The Politically Incorrect Guide to Socialismnow available at Amazon.com. You can buy an autographed copy through National Review Online here.


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