In this April 8, 2010 file photo, B. Todd Jones, U.S. Attorney for Minnesota, speaks in St. Paul. / Jim Mone, AP
WASHINGTON - Among the most politically fraught items on the list to change gun policy after the Sandy Hook school massacre may not be the proposals to renew the assault weapons ban or expand the use of background checks.
It is the Obama administration's proposal to empower the long-beleaguered Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, the nation's chief firearms enforcement agency.
Obama's announcement on Wednesday to nominate B. Todd Jones, the ATF's acting director, is the latest attempt to fill a leadership void that has left the agency without a permanent director for six years.
The nomination of Jones, who also serves as the U.S. attorney in Minneapolis, comes at a crucial time for an agency still struggling to recover from its involvement in a botched gun trafficking investigation that allowed about 2,000 firearms to fall into the hands of Mexican drug cartel enforcers and other criminals.
The administration's action also seeks to break years of political gridlock, which blocked previous nominee Andrew Traver, a career ATF agent, who the National Rifle Association fiercely opposed.
Traver was first nominated to the post in 2010 and renominated in 2011. Both times, Traver's nomination languished in the Senate.
Former ATF directors and law enforcement analysts said Wednesday that they were encouraged by Jones' nomination and urged the administration to see it through even if it encounters opposition.
The NRA did not have a response to Jones' nomination.
"This couldn't come at a better time," said former ATF director John Magaw, who took over the bureau after the 1993 fatal siege of the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, which left 80 dead. "As a lawyer and federal prosecutor, (Jones) understands the law and will give good guidance to the agency," he said.
"Jones has the political skills to do the job," said Ronnie Carter, who was ATF's acting director in 2009. Yet Carter said he believes the political forces aligned with gun rights advocates will be too strong to overcome.
"I would doubt that he will ever be confirmed,'' Carter said. "I seriously don't think that Congress or the NRA will ever let the agency have a permanent director,'' he said.
Within hours of Obama's announcement, some of the first hints of congressional opposition to Jones' nomination came from Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley, the Judiciary Committee's ranking Republican. Grassley said that Jones would face "serious questions'' related to his nomination. Grassley referred to Jones' "ties'' to the failed Mexican gun-trafficking investigation known as "Operation Fast and Furious.''
Grassley did not elaborate and it was unclear what he was referring to since Jones was appointed to the acting director's job in August 2011, following the ouster of Ken Melson, another acting director whose leadership was called into question during the congressional investigation into Fast and Furious.
Since his appointment at ATF, Jones has had two full-time jobs: presiding over all federal prosecutions in Minnesota and managing the nation's chief gun-enforcement agency.
Because of "Fast and Furious,'' much of Jones' time at the ATF has been directed to a reorganization of agency leadership.
The changes have even included some discussion of renaming the agency as the Violent Crime Bureau. The move would update an identity still cloaked in the Prohibition-era vices of alcohol and tobacco trafficking while removing a reference to firearms that has long drawn the ire of gun rights advocates. Jones was not available for comment.
Bradley Buckles, a former ATF director, said Jones is well regarded in the agency and has "a fine reputation as a strong U.S. attorney."
"If anybody can get confirmed, he can," Buckles said. "You know, the NRA likes to say that the best defense against a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun. ATF agents are the good guys. They deserve to have good leadership and a permanent director.''
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