- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 18, 2009

The outgoing acting director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives says violence along the Mexican border is the greatest challenge facing his yet-to-be-named successor.

Michael Sullivan, who leaves his post Tuesday, said violent drug-trafficking organizations are killing police, government officials and innocent civilians, and that the ATF needs to work more closely with both Mexican authorities and the roughly 6,000 gun dealers along the Southwest border.

The dealers play a key role in helping trace the source of weapons in Mexico, nearly all of which are suspected to be smuggled from the U.S., Mr. Sullivan told The Washington Times in a wide-ranging, hour-long interview.

“That’s a tremendous investigative, intelligence lead for us. If we can trace those guns, we can start honing and pinpointing where those traffickers may be engaged, where the source of the guns are,” he said.

“We certainly haven’t been able to stop the flow, but I think we’re making huge progress; we’re now stopping [the shipment of] guns before they’re recovered, after the fact, at crime scenes in the country of Mexico.”

In 2008, about 8,000 guns were traced back to their source, up from about 1,000 previously, Mr. Sullivan said.

“I think you see the spillover principally on the border itself, on both sides of the border, with the escalation of violence,” he said. “This is not limited to the country of Mexico, but even if it were, even if all the violence was in the country of Mexico, I still think we have an obligation and duty to do what we can to protect the people in Mexico.

“We’re asking them to address drugs moving either through or from Mexico. I think it’s perfectly reasonable for them to say ‘be equally committed to stopping the flow of guns,’ ” Mr. Sullivan estimates that 90 percent to 95 percent of those guns are smuggled into Mexico from the U.S.

Mr. Sullivan leaves Washington this week as President-elect Barack Obama prepares to appoint his own director for the ATF, which has more than 5,000 employees.

Mr. Sullivan said he will return to Massachusetts, where he is a U.S. Attorney. Mr. Sullivan held both jobs for the more than two years he led the ATF.

His nomination for ATF director marked the first time the appointment required Senate confirmation. But Mr. Sullivan, a Republican, was blocked by fellow Republicans whose problem was not necessarily with him, but with what they saw as an ATF overzealousness in enforcing gun laws aimed at small gun dealers.

But Mr. Sullivan said only about 1 percent of the roughly 10,000 gun dealers in the country lose their licenses each year.

“I don’t want to speak on behalf of ATF, but speaking on behalf of myself, I would disagree with some of the conclusions that were reached as a result of what was more anecdotal information that was being provided,” he said. “Obviously, anecdotal information is important; it’s important to us to be responsive to the questions and the concerns that are being raised by the members of the Senate.”

Whoever his successor is, Mr. Sullivan said that person will be able to build on the success of Project Safe Neighborhood, a Bush administration program that partners the ATF with local law enforcement to combat gun violence.

Among the program’s strategies is putting felons who illegally possess guns behind bars before they commit violent crimes.

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