By Clay Boggs
In one of the longest and most dramatic Senate votes in recent memory, President Obama’s nominee for director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF), B. Todd Jones, was confirmed on July 31. After Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) voted “no,” several Democratic senators, including Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA), Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), and Senator Chuck Schumer (D-NY) lobbied her intensely to change her vote. This last-minute intervention was effective, and Senator Murkowski decided to switch her vote to “yes.” The vote was kept open throughout the afternoon as Senator Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND) returned to D.C. from her home state to cast the decisive vote. In the end, exactly 60 senators voted for cloture (there is a 60-vote threshold to invoke cloture); and when the nomination moved to a final vote, 53 senators voted for confirmation. The extremely close vote, the extraordinary pressure placed on Senator Murkowski, and the dramatic return of Senator Heitkamp to place the final vote speaks to the importance of Jones’ confirmation and also to the ways in which Congress has, for several years, inhibited the ATF’s ability to carry out its mission.
This vote is a watershed moment in the national debate about gun violence. Since the defeat of Manchin-Toomey (a bill to expand background checks for gun buyers) in April, the gun violence prevention community has worked to change the political calculus around this issue. The vote to confirm Jones clearly shows that more and more senators recognize that popular opinion supports common-sense gun laws. In fact, the National Rifle Association remained neutral in this process, to the surprise of many.
Jones’ confirmation should enable the ATF to more effectively carry out its mandate. The ATF will have a full-time director for the first time since 2006, when Congress required that the director have Senate confirmation; since then, there has not been a full-time director. (Jones had been serving as acting director of the ATF while simultaneously serving as U.S. Attorney for the District of Minnesota.) By depriving the agency of a director capable of implementing existing policies, Congress effectively limited the federal government’s ability to combat gun violence.
As full-time director of the ATF, Jones will face many challenges. One of the many areas Jones should focus on is cross-border gun trafficking. Even as media coverage of Mexico focuses more on economic issues and less on violence, rates of homicide, kidnapping, and extortion remain extremely high. And too many guns from the United States are ending up in the hands of criminals; 70 percent of guns recovered in Mexico and submitted for tracing came from the United States. With his confirmation, Jones now can and should work to reduce this number.
Clay Boggs is a Program Officer at WOLA.