Behind the scenes, federal agents in charge of stopping gun trafficking to Mexico have quietly advanced a plan to help stem the smuggling of high-powered AK-47s and AR-15s to the bloody drug war south of the border.
The controversial proposal by officials at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives calls for a measure strongly opposed by the National Rifle Association: requiring gun dealers to report multiple sales of rifles and shotguns to ATF.
The gun issue is so incendiary and fear of the NRA so great that the ATF plan languished for months at the Justice Department, according to some senior law enforcement officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity but would not provide details.
The NRA got wind of the idea last month and warned its 4 million members in a "grassroots alert" that the administration might try to go around Congress to get such a plan enacted as an executive order or rule.
An ATF spokesman declined to comment about the matter. Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. declined to be interviewed. Matt Miller, a spokesman for the Justice Department, said "the administration continues to support common-sense measures to stem gun violence."
In the past few days, the plan has quietly gained traction at Justice. But sources told The Post they fear that if the plan becomes public, the NRA will marshal its forces to kill it.
Such is the power of the NRA. With annual revenue of about $250 million, the group has for four decades been the strongest force shaping the nation's gun laws.
The fate of the Mexican gunrunning rule is only the most recent example of how the gun lobby has consistently outmaneuvered and hemmed in ATF, using political muscle to intimidate lawmakers and erect barriers to tougher gun laws. Over nearly four decades, the NRA has wielded remarkable influence over Congress, persuading lawmakers to curb ATF's budget and mission and to call agency officials to account at oversight hearings. The source of the NRA's power is its focus on one issue and its ability to get pro-gun candidates elected.
The result is that a president such as Obama, whose campaign platform called for tougher gun laws, finds his freedom of action circumscribed. The issue has bedeviled Democrats for years, especially after defeats in the 1994 midterms and the 2000 presidential election, in which Al Gore lost his home state of Tennessee.
"That was the shift of the tectonic plate for the Democrats on the gun issue," said James Cavanaugh, former ATF special agent in charge in Nashville. "The thing that really, really, really scared the Democrats was Al Gore losing his home state, and the reason was the gun issue. They all know it."
The gun lobbyists are well aware of their power. "The White House is sensitized enough to understand it really is the third rail of American politics," said Richard Feldman, a former lobbyist for the NRA and a gun industry trade representative who has discussed gun policy with White House officials. "They have figured out that it is a lightning-rod issue, and they don't want it to injure them."
Led by Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre, who was paid $1.26 million in 2008, the NRA in the past two decades has spent more than $100 million on political activities in the United States, according to documents and interviews, including $22 million on lobbying and nearly $75 million on campaigns.
Only two groups have spent more on campaigns since 1989 - the Service Employees International Union and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, according to a review of campaign financing by The Washington Post.
In this year's midterm elections, 80 percent of the 307 House and Senate backed by the NRA were victorious, a Post analysis of the NRA's endorsements shows. About half of incoming House members got NRA backing, the analysis shows. In the Senate, the NRA says the number of A-rated senators is now 50.
NRA officials say their efforts protect the rights of gun owners. "We don't represent criminals who misuse firearms," said Chris W. Cox, director of the NRA's Institute for Legislative Action. "We don't represent dealers who willfully and knowingly violate the law. We represent honest, law-abiding people, including honest dealers who are often targeted in an unfortunate way."
Last year, the NRA perturbed ATF agents by sending dealers an article by an industry lawyer. "You never, ever have to speak to an ATF agent or inspector," the article said. "You have the absolute right not to answer any questions that an inspector may pose to you."
Another reason morale is low, ATF agents say, is the firearms bureau has been without a permanent director since 2006, when Congress required the position to be confirmed by the Senate. The effect was to give the gun lobby power to block a director - one senator can hold up any nomination, and the Senate needs 60 votes to overcome that opposition.
Last month, about two weeks after the midterm elections, Obama nominated a director: Andrew Traver, special agent in charge of ATF's Chicago field division.
The NRA strongly opposes Traver because he is "deeply aligned with gun control advocates and anti-gun activities," an NRA news release said. The group cited his work with the Gun Violence Reduction Project, a nationwide initiative of police chiefs, and the Joyce Foundation, which promotes stricter gun laws.
With the NRA in opposition, Traver's nomination is unlikely to be approved by Congress.
"It is clearly the most powerful lobby in the United States," said William Vizzard, a former ATF agent who is now a criminal-justice professor in California. "The NRA has shaped gun policy and shaped the ATF."
The NRA's shift
Don Davis, 77, has run Don's Guns and Galleries in Indianapolis for 37 years and says he is one of the highest-volume dealers in the region. A big supporter of the Second Amendment right to bear arms, Davis resigned from the NRA many years ago. "They used to be an organization for the hunter and the fishermen," he said recently. "Then they got into politics. They're so political, that's what they do with their money. Today if you say anything about a gun, they use their money to run against you."
The story of how a group created in 1871 to sharpen the marksmanship of soldiers transformed into a modern political juggernaut begins after serious gun control gained momentum in the United States following the assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Robert F. Kennedy and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
The NRA's shift came at a time of increasing urban gun violence and debate about firearm laws. It also coincided with the creation of the modern-day ATF. The agency had been born as a bureau within the Treasury Department in 1972. By the middle of that decade it was moving from busting moonshiners in Appalachia to enforcing gun laws in U.S. cities.
The NRA created a political arm in 1975, largely in response to the Gun Control Act of 1968, which expanded licensing and recordkeeping requirements for gun dealers and placed limitations on handgun sales. Shortly after, hard-liners wrested control from moderates during an NRA conference known as "the revolt in Cincinnati."
In 1978, the NRA was ready when the Carter administration proposed a rule requiring quarterly reports on gun sales from licensed firearms dealers. NRA opposition produced 350,000 letters and comments. One letter was addressed to the Gestapo, while another included a tea bag to invoke the Boston Tea Party.
Congress killed the rule and also prohibited ATF from "consolidating or centralizing" gun dealer records in a computer database, which the agency wanted to do to analyze gun traces for trafficking patterns. Congress also cut $4.2 million from the ATF budget, the amount needed to fund a computer system.
The message was clear and searing.
"It scared ATF so badly that for the next 10 years, if you said 'computer,' everybody ran and hid in the closet," Vizzard said.
When Ronald Reagan came into office, the NRA nearly succeeded in its longtime goal of abolishing ATF. Reagan wanted to eliminate the agency and transfer its powers to the Secret Service and the Internal Revenue Service. But NRA leaders decided they preferred the weak devil they knew to stronger new regulators. Quietly and somewhat awkwardly, they lobbied to undo their accomplishment. "As long as ATF existed, the firearms lobby could utilize it as a symbolic opponent," Vizzard said. "Without an ATF, the firearms lobby lost a key actor in the ritual drama - the villain."
Under Reagan, the NRA's power grew. In 1986, the NRA won passage of a law that limited ATF inspections of gun dealers to once a year, reduced certain violations to misdemeanors and raised the standard of proof needed to revoke a dealer's license.
The NRA said the act was necessary because ATF was too tough on honest dealers, many of whom are small mom-and-pop operations. ATF agents said the effect was to make it much more difficult to shut down rogue gun dealers.
With the election of Bill Clinton, the gun lobby faced its greatest challenge. He shepherded new laws, beginning with criminal background checks on purchasers and a 10-year ban on sales of assault weapons. One of the laws was named for James Brady, the former White House press secretary who was shot in the 1981 assassination attempt on Reagan.
"Clinton was the most unfriendly president to the firearms industry," said Lawrence Keane, general counsel to the National Shooting Sports Foundation, which represents gun manufacturers.
Some rural Democrats with good NRA ratings sided with Clinton. In 1994, the NRA helped the GOP unseat so many Democrats that Clinton blamed his party's loss of Congress on the gun issue. The NRA spent $114,710 to help Rep. George R. Nethercutt (R-Wash.) upset House Speaker Thomas S. Foley (D).
"The NRA had a great night," Clinton wrote in his autobiography. "They beat both Speaker Tom Foley and Jack Brooks, two of the ablest members of Congress, who had warned me this would happen. . . The NRA was an unforgiving master: one strike and you're out."
The cold war between ATF and the NRA went hot in 1995 when LaPierre, in a fundraising letter, called federal agents "jack-booted government thugs." Referring to ATF raid on the Branch Davidian compound in Texas, LaPierre wrote, "Not too long ago, it was unthinkable for federal agents wearing Nazi bucket helmets and black storm trooper uniforms to attack law-abiding citizens."
The letter backfired. Many NRA members contended LaPierre had gone too far. Former president George H.W. Bush, a gun enthusiast and decades-long member, resigned from the NRA. Bush accused the NRA of slurring a "wide array of government law enforcement officials, who are out there, day and night, laying their lives on the line for all of us."
In the wake of that rare NRA misstep, the group turned to a new public face and president: Charlton Heston.
At the 2000 NRA convention, the former actor brought the audience to its feet with his attack on gun control advocates. In a memorable speech attacking presidential candidate Al Gore, Heston raised a replica of a Colonial musket over his head and said, echoing a bumper sticker, "From my cold, dead hands."
When Gore lost the 2000 election, many Democrats blamed it on pro-gun-control positions he had taken in the past.
Gun control activists tried a new tack: lawsuits. After watching the success of litigation against tobacco companies in the 1990s, the city of Chicago seized on a novel legal theory to sue gunmakers and stores, arguing that handgun marketing endangered public health. Bob Ricker, a former NRA counsel turned whistleblower, testified that the industry was complicit because there are gun dealers "who through willful, negligent or irresponsible actions contribute to the illicit gun market."
Industry lawyer Keane said Ricker, who died in December, was not credible, because he was a paid consultant. In response to the lawsuits, gun industry attorneys said that dealers should not be held liable for how their guns are used and that the lawsuits were an attempt to shut down the industry.
The gun lobby played a congressional trump card. In 2003, Todd Tiahrt, a Republican congressman from Kansas, surprised members of both parties with a last-minute amendment to a spending bill to exempt ATF's gun-trace database from the Freedom of Information Act. The effect was to take the heat off gun dealers with the most traces and deny the information to lawyers, academics and journalists. The Tiahrt Amendment, along with a later industry immunity bill, largely killed the litigation.
The Obama effect
In January, on the massive convention floor of the Sands Expo & Convention Center in Las Vegas, attendees and vendors from 75 countries milled amid the giant, dazzling booths featuring elaborate displays of weaponry, from Glocks to Bushmasters.
The annual SHOT Show - the Shooting, Hunting, Outdoor Trade Show, the largest trade event for the shooting sports and hunting industries — drew about 60,000 buyers and manufacturers. Business was booming.
"Despite the worst recession in a generation, we have thrived," National Shooting Sports Foundation President Steven Sanetti said at the event's state-of-the-industry dinner.
The reason? Barack Obama.
Critics say the NRA and other gun organizations used Obama's candidacy and election to scare gun owners and boost their memberships. In TV ads and on the Internet, the NRA warned that Obama planned to ban handguns and close 90 percent of gun shops.
"Never in NRA's history have we faced a presidential candidate . . . with such a deep-rooted hatred of firearm freedoms," LaPierre wrote in a fundraising letter in 2008. He declined to be interviewed for this story.
Obama never said anything about banning handguns or closing gun shops. His campaign platform promised to pursue long-standing proposals to address urban violence: reinstating the assault weapons ban, outlawing "cop killer" bullets and closing the "gun-show loophole" that permits firearm sales without background checks.
The campaign said Obama favored "commonsense measures" to protect gun rights "while keeping guns away from children and from criminals who shouldn't have them." Obama also said he would repeal the Tiahrt Amendment.
The NRA created a Web page that is still active, http://www.gunbanobama.com">www.gunbanobama.com, to attack Obama's gun record. The site states, "Hillary was Right: You Can't Trust Obama With Your Guns." It then links to a mailer that Hillary Rodham Clinton used in the Democratic primary against Obama.
Recognizing his vulnerability in swing states, Obama began to run an alternate campaign to calm the worries of gun owners, said Ray Schoenke, a former Washington Redskins lineman who founded a moderate gun rights group, the American Hunters and Shooters Association, as part of the Obama effort.
The Obama campaign paid for Schoenke's travel to 40 events in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Florida and Colorado to address pro-gun voters.
"The opposition said Obama was going to take away everyone's guns, tax ammunitions, tax guns, register guns and reinstate the assault weapons ban," Schoenke said. "We said, 'He is not going to do any of these things.' And he didn't."
When Holder, then Obama's nominee for attorney general, repeated Obama's gun control platform at his confirmation hearing last year, 65 Democrats wrote Holder vowing to "actively oppose" any effort to restore the assault weapons ban. It was taken off the table, along with the other proposals.
Schoenke said he was in touch with the White House after Holder's comments, and he was assured that Obama would not be making a move toward stricter gun laws unpopular with gun groups. "We basically said it ain't gonna happen," Schoenke said recently. "And it hasn't happened."
In his first 20 months in office, Obama has virtually been silent on guns.
When the Obama administration passed its budget last year, it left the Tiahrt Amendment virtually intact. It expanded police access to the gun trace data but tightened restrictions on public disclosure of the data.
Gun control advocates are disappointed.
"President Obama's first-year record on gun violence prevention has been an abject failure," said the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence.
The NRA, whose membership has tripled since 1978, says it remains on guard.
"We're up against, in the next two years, an Obama administration embedded with people that have spent a lifetime trying to destroy this great American freedom," LaPierre said on an NRA election-night webcast, "and we're going to have our work cut out for us."