Dan Thomasson - Gun control and constraints on ATF

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Americans who expect something dramatic out of Congress when it comes to gun control had better think again if the chairman of a powerful and key House committee is to be believed.

In fact, hopes for at least requiring every gun buyer to face a universal background check -- the bare minimum needed to make a dent in firearms violence -- probably won't even be realized, according to Chairman Robert Goodlatte of the House Judiciary Committee, although he said some improvement could be made in the vetting process.

The Virginia Republican made that pretty clear recently during a breakfast meeting with reporters under the auspices of The Christian Science Monitor. In it, Goodlatte pretty much spouted the National Rifle Association mantra about the need to enforce the gun control laws already on the books, adding that a ban on assault weapons was a nonstarter.

Did that mean he would support bolstering the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives -- the agency assigned to bring the bad guys to ground but used as a whipping boy for pro-gun zealots -- to accomplish the increased prosecutions he said were needed to clean up the streets? Hardly. There are budget constraints, you know.

No one should be surprised by this. Most Republicans rely heavily on a constituency that brooks no interference with the free flow of weapons, the only products of any kind protected by the Constitution no matter how dangerous to society. Not even a series of horrific bloodlettings can persuade them that an amendment written 226 years ago, in a nation mainly of wilderness, may have little relevance in a modern urban society of 315 million people.

Certainly, Goodlatte is a pretty good weathervane about which way the wind is blowing in the House Republican hierarchy. It is for sure that he wouldn't bend any way it wasn't. While bucking the course might make him legitimately worthy of holding such an exalted position on the committee, there are all those problems with the Tea Party movement and gun lobbyists and so forth, don't you know?

Mine was the last of the 20 or so questions he fielded at the breakfast. Well, Mr. Congressman, I said, how are you going to accomplish the crackdown on street crime when you and your Republican colleagues on both sides of Capitol Hill have neutered the one agency directly responsible for doing that?

The ATF, I argued, hasn't had a significant budget increase or a permanent director in nearly a decade. The agent force is at 2,000, and the inspection force is slim at best. (Actually, that group is so small, gun dealers rarely worry about inspections.) Furthermore, gun records can only be kept a short time and Congress even has forbidden the agency to computerize the information. They haven't the money, I declared.

"They have the wherewithal," Goodlatte mumbled.

"Well, I beg to differ," I countered. And on that happy note, as the moderator said, the session ended before I could explain that as the father of a former ATF agent I had some personal understanding of the problems.

It was over -- and so, I fear, is much chance that something meaningful will come out of the national debate that declares to the rest of the world this country is willing to significantly memorialize the 20 children and six adults killed with a hail of bullets in their Connecticut grade school with action aimed at not letting it happen again whatever that takes and includes responsible gun control.

Want to know how bad it is? The chairman of this strategic committee, which once gave us the RICO Act to prosecute organized crime, argued about what is an "assault weapon," apparently not recognizing the rapid-fire, semi-automatic military AR-15 that killed all those kids as qualifying for the designation.

And, oh yes, Goodlatte corrected one questioner's reference to a "gun show loophole" in the background requirements. "There is no gun show loophole," he said, "because many of those at the show are licensed dealers and must require background information." That should be news to those who bought thousands of guns sold at these shows every year in private sales.

Here are two suggestions for his Easter junkets: Go to Afghanistan and view an assault weapon in action. Then go to a gun show.

(Dan Thomasson is former editor of Scripps Howard News Service.)

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