Faced with bracing evidence and the testimony of four ATF agents contradicting the Justice Department’s initial blanket denials that assault weapons were knowingly allowed to escape into the clutches of Mexican drug cartels, Democrats tried a new approach at a hearing Wednesday.
Rather than focus on questioning the GOP’s investigative tactics, Democrats on the House Oversight Committee sought to subtly channel the burgeoning scandal into a push for new gun control laws.
For instance, Rep. Gerry Connolly, Virginia Democrat, connected the apparently reckless investigative strategy to the National Rifle Association’s (NRA) lobbying pushes.
“The NRA has opposed regulations which would require tracking of multiple gun sales,” Connolly noted in a statement passed out to reporters. “The gun lobby and its advocates in Congress are even trying to pass legislation to eviscerate the ATF’s authority to stop criminals.”
Rep. Carolyn Maloney, New York Democrat, also drew a link between the Operation Fast and Furious scandal and whether ATF agents are plagued by “toothless” laws.
“US Attorneys have complained” that prosecutions for illegally purchasing weapons to resell to criminal networks are viewed by judges as “mere paper violations. Have you heard this criticism before?” Maloney asked the four ATF agents testifying.
“I have and I agree with it,” said Peter Forceilli, who thought a minimum sentence of one year in jail would ensure cooperation from “straw buyers” caught by federal authorities.
Darrell Issa, chairman of the Oversight Committee, sought to intervene.
“I want to caution the witnesses,” Issa said. “The scope of your testimony here is limited, and is not about proposed legislation and the like.”
Elijah Cummings, Maryland Democrat and Issa’s combative foil on the oversight panel, protested vociferously. “It’s only fair” for the ATF agents to speak their mind about whether gun laws should be strengthened, he said.
The shift in tactics by the Democrats came as they also appeared to concede the weight of the evidence Issa was presenting clearly undercut blanket denials initially issued by the Justice Department.
Cummings, for instance, called the four ATF agents “great Americans” for “standing up for what you believe in,” and warned the ATF not to retaliate against the agents.
However, when a top deputy to Attorney General Eric Holder was testifying, Cummings ostentatiously apologized for Issa’s conduct in demanding answers from assistant attorney general Ronald Weich. “Let me apologize,” he said. Issa objected that “you may apologize on behalf of something you say.”
Cummings, in defending Weich, shows Democrats are still invested in defending the Obama administration even as documents and testimony are increasingly undermining the administration’s claims.
But the gun control comments Wednesday indicate they may be preparing to chart a new course: embracing the controversy and using it for their own political purposes.
That would, at the very least, leave less time to save Holder from Issa’s zealous investigation.