Broken U.S. Senate Rules May Make It Impossible To Ever Confirm A Director Of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms

In 2006, the NRA successfully lobbied then-House Judiciary Chair James Sensenbrenner (R-WI) to insert a provision into the PATRIOT Act reauthorization requiring the Director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms to be confirmed by the Senate. Since then, the ATF has never had a Senate-confirmed head.

Shortly after the 2006 law took effect, President Bush nominated U.S. Attorney Michael Sullivan to head the ATF, but even a Republican president’s choice proved unacceptable to pro-gun lobbyists. The NRA, in particular, accused Sullivan of “overly restrictive legal interpretations” and “overly zealous enforcement activities” because, while Sullivan served as Acting Director of ATF, the agency revoked several gun dealers licenses to sell firearms. Sens. David Vitter (R-LA), Larry Craig (R-ID) and Mike Crapo (R-ID) quickly took up the gun lobby’s cause, placing a hold on Sullivan’s nomination until he agreed to comply with the NRA’s demands. Sullivan was never confirmed.

The problem only got worse once President Obama took office. Obama did not nominate an ATF Director until Nov. 2010, in no small part because the administration “had a tough time even finding a candidate interested in the ATF job because of likely gun-lobby resistance.” When Obama finally did nominate Andrew Traver, a 23 year veteran of the ATF and the head of its Chicago office, the gun lobby did not disappoint. Within 24 hours of the Traver nomination, the NRA officially announced its opposition.

In its press release attacking Traver, the NRA cited Traver’s work on a report “calling for bans on .50 caliber rifles” as a source of its opposition. For the record, the bullet depicted on the right in the photograph below is a .50 caliber round. The much smaller bullet on the left is a .223 round of the kind often fired by the U.S. military’s standard-issue M-16 assault rifles, and the bullet in the middle is a .30–06 hunting round. So the NRA objects to Traver because he believes that civilians should not be able to purchase firearms that fire rounds which literally tower over the bullets used by most U.S. servicemembers in combat.

The NRA also attacks Traver because he once participated in a TV report highlighting the dangers of fully automatic assault rifles:

Traver also participated in an extremely deceptive NBC Chicago report ( in which he referred to “the growing frequency of gang members and drug dealers using heavy caliber military-type weapons” and described them as if they were machine guns: “Pull the trigger and you can mow people down.” Traver and his agents provided the reporter with a fully automatic AK-47, with which she was unable to hit the target. He then said that stray bullets are “one of the main problems with having stuff like this available to the gangs.”

As the Agent-in-Charge of Chicago’s BATFE office, Traver knows that fully automatic firearms are not available through normal retail channels — the opposite of what was implied in the report.

If anyone is being deceptive, it is the NRA. Contrary to the NRA’s claim that “fully automatic firearms” are not available at retail, the NBC report includes video of a man purchasing an AK-47 at an Indiana gun dealer. He then used that weapon to murder a 14 year-old girl. Watch it:

Yet, while the NRA’s objections to Traver have little grounding in reality, they will likely be sufficient to keep the ATF leaderless. Last month, the Senate returned Traver’s nomination unconfirmed to the President, and the Senate’s broken rules will make it very difficult to move his nomination forward if just one senator objects. Nor is the NRA’s stranglehold on the ATF directorship an isolated incident. As ThinkProgress’ Lee Fang recently reported, corporate lobbyists have created an entire holds-for-sale industry which connects powerful interest groups with senators willing to place a hold on Senate business which could hurt the interest group’s bottom line. Until the Senate’s broken rules are reformed, this kind of influence trading will continue unchecked.


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