Just last month, secretary of State Hillary Clinton flew to Mexico City and announced the Obama administration was "doing all that we can" to curb the illegal flow of U.S. weapons to Mexico's drug cartels. But 15 months after the president took office, the White House has yet to nominate a director to run the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), the agency tasked with policing weapons traffic. In fact, the acting director, Kenneth Melson, recently had to be demoted to deputy director because of a law that limits how long acting chiefs can run federal agencies. This has left ATF without a Senate-confirmed leader at a time of increased cross-border gun violence and mounting concerns about militia activity. "It's shocking and indefensible," says Kristen Rand of the Violence Policy Center, a gun-control group, "that when you have a huge problem from gun trafficking and gun violence, they have left this agency leaderless." The void has also dispirited ATF field agents, some current and former officials say. "The message that's sent to the employees is, 'You don't matter,'" says Jim Cavanaugh, a 33-year bureau veteran who retired this month as the agent in charge of the Nashville office.
Advocates like Rand say the failure to nominate a director reflects the administration's larger fear of tackling any firearms issue--like reinstating the assault-weapons ban--that might rile the gun lobby. A White House spokesman declined requests for comment. But privately, senior officials (who asked not to be identified talking about a personnel issue) say they have had a tough time even finding a candidate interested in the ATF job because of likely gun-lobby resistance. That's what befell the last person President George W. Bush nominated for the job, Michael Sullivan. He never got a vote after then-senator Larry Craig of Idaho--upset about the ATF's treatment of a firearms dealer in his state--put a hold on Sullivan's nomination. "Do you think there is anybody we can get confirmed for that job?" asks an administration official. Still, says another, the administration hopes to have a nominee "soon." (NRA spokesman Andrew Arulanandam says, "If they want to delegate the authority to make that nomination, we'd be happy to do it.")
The absence of a chief, say critics, has made the ATF more cautious about going after gun-trafficking rings or firearms dealers who sell bulk weapons to gangs. Mexican President Felipe Calderón, for example, recently complained about the U.S.'s failure to crack down on the 10,000 gun shops operating along the border. "I'm absolutely confident that because of the lack of a confirmed director, crimes are being committed and innocent people are dying," says James Pasco, a former ATF assistant director. But the bureau's Melson disputes any suggestion that the agency has backed off big cases, citing recent successes targeting illegal traffickers in Houston. The lack of a nominee to run ATF hasn't had "any impact" on the agency's operations, Melson says. "I emphatically deny that the agency has stood still."