When the House votes Thursday whether to hold Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt, members will have to weigh whether the circumstances of the long-running "Fast and Furious" scandal warrant putting the nation’s top legal official in contempt for the first time in US history.
They’re also going to weigh the opinion of the National Rifle Association, which is going to put the vote on its annual scorecard.
Wait, the NRA is going to hold lawmakers' feet to the fire on a contempt of Congress vote? What gives?
Running underneath the to-and-fro allegations over Operation Fast and Furious – which began in 2009 when federal agents allowed guns to “walk” into Mexico in order to trace where they ended up and that came to a head when guns from the scheme were linked to the death of an American border agent – is an entirely different discussion: American gun rights.
The NRA and Rep. Darrell Issa (R) of California, chairman of the House Government Oversight Committee, both believe the government has tried to use the Fast and Furious scandal to support arguments for more gun control.
“[T]he Department’s obstruction of congressional oversight of a program that cost lives in support of an anti-gun agenda,” wrote Chris Cox, executive director of the NRA’s Institute for Legislative Action, in a letter to the leadership of the House Oversight panel explaining the group's dash into the Fast and Furious fray.
Mr. Cox continues: “Heightening the NRA’s concerns – and requiring our involvement – is the White House’s use of this program to advance its gun control agenda. The White House actively sought information from the operation to support its plan to demand reporting of multiple rifle sales by the nearly 9,000 federally licensed firearm dealers in border states.”
Those concerns were echoed by Representative Issa on ABC’s "This Week" last Sunday.
“We have e-mail from people involved in this that are talking about using what they’re finding here to support the ... basically assault weapons ban or greater reporting,” he said.
The NRA, a powerful political force, particularly in rural districts, could wield influence even over some Democrats to support the contempt vote.
Even though the NRA has decided to weigh in, the relationship between Fast and Furious and gun regulations is rather tenuous. As The New York Times's Jonathan Weisman points out, Internal e-mails from various government departments relating to Fast and Furious don’t show a push for more gun regulations. Those that refer to changing gun regulations come far after the inception of Fast and Furious, undermining the conservative argument that the entire operation was built in part on trying to influence American gun rules.
Moreover, Issa has not revealed any documents showing discussion of an assault-weapons ban related to Fast and Furious.
“If he has those documents,” Mr. Hoyer said, “he ought to show them.”
It should also be noted that Mr. Holder is not being held in contempt for attempting to tighten the nation's weapons laws. Instead, Holder faces the House's ire because he has not turned over all the documents desired by Issa. The latest document request by the Oversight chairman was met with a claim of executive privilege, blocking them from release.
But there's another wrinkle to the gun-rights angle on Fast and Furious. As Hoyer pointed out, the typical argument of gun-rights advocates – that guns don’t kill people; people kill people – casts the entire gun-walking operation in a slightly different light, at odds with the mainstream GOP view on guns.
“People kill people, not guns, I’m told on a regular basis, and controlling guns, whether it's assault weapons, would not solve the problem, I’m told by some,” Hoyer said. “I hope you see the contradiction in the position being taken."