Foes become allies against FBI takeover of ATF Pro-, anti-gun control groups in accord

September 03, 1993|By Newsday

The National Rifle Association and Handgun Control Inc., the nation's most visible anti-gun lobby, can usually be found at diametric ends of the debate over gun control.

But the two organizations apparently have found a common ground against the proposed absorption by the FBI of the criminal investigation section of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.

"We're in agreement -- maybe for the first time ever," says Richard Aborn, a former New York City prosecutor and current president of the Washington-based anti-gun lobby.

The "Reinventing Government" task force, under the direction of Vice President Al Gore, is set to unveil a broad package of government reform recommendations Tuesday -- but the merger ATF's criminal investigation section into the FBI isn't likely to be one of them.

Federal sources say opposition from both sides of the gun-control spectrum, as well as a growing chorus of dissent from key legislators on Capitol Hill, has probably killed the idea.

"It isn't getting any support from anybody," says one official. "People in the House and Senate aren't supportive; I'm not even sure the White House wants it."

Federal sources say NRA officials aggressively lobbied key Capitol Hill legislators to blunt the proposed merger. The NRA reportedly feared that FBI enforcement of gun laws would make it tougher to buy and sell guns, since the bureau has greater personnel and resources and seems better equipped to regulate interstate gun commerce.

At the same time, Handgun Control -- the organization founded by Sarah Brady, whose husband was nearly killed in the assassination attempt against then-President Reagan in 1981 -- is also opposed because it might weaken efforts to contain illegal firearms trafficking.

"Guns are a very, very major problem. It needs a single focus, a singular agency responsible," Mr. Aborn says. Wayne LaPierre, NRA executive vice president, was unavailable for comment by telephone.

ATF spokesman Jack Killoran admits that having the two organizations in accord "is unusual," though he believes it reflects "high marks for professionalism" at ATF and a concern that shifting most law-enforcement functions into the FBI would raise the specter of a national police force.

Some federal officials say the proposed merger was almost doomed from the start. ATF functions as part of the Treasury Department, and Treasury Secretary Lloyd Bentsen strenuously objects to losing the agency's criminal division to the Justice Department, where the FBI resides. In addition, some of Congress' most influential legislators -- notably Sen. Dennis DeConcini, D-Ariz. -- fought the idea from the start.

One senior ATF official, speaking on condition of anonymity, says agency administrators believe the question has been abandoned completely by the Gore task force. "We have no sense that it's on the agenda at all," the official says.

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