Gun lobby stands firm in opposing Obama's ATF nominee
Chicago gang fighter called wrong choice to head agency
Andrew Traver, left, special agent in charge of the Chicago field division of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, speaks at a 2009 news conference. He is President Barack Obama's nominee to head the agency. (Kuni Takahashi, Chicago Tribune / February 16, 2011)
Traver, 47, who has been praised for his work against Chicago area's street gangs, has led the ATF in Illinois since 2004. Both Illinois senators have applauded President Barack Obama's choice; so have law enforcement officials.
Obama nominated Traver in November, triggering strong opposition from the NRA, which called him hostile to the Second Amendment and urged Obama to withdraw the nomination.
Traver "has been deeply aligned with gun control advocates and anti-gun activities," Chris Cox, who leads the NRA's lobbying arm, said at that time.
Obama renominated Traver when the new Congress met in January and the NRA's rejection of Traver still stands.
The job of ATF director has required Senate confirmation only since 2006, but that's never happened, leaving the agency in the hands of acting directors. Even President George W. Bush couldn't get his nominee, a Republican U.S. attorney from Boston, through the Senate.
Writing to Obama this month, Illinois' two senators, Democrat Dick Durbin and Republican Mark Kirk, said the lack of leadership at ATF has hampered efforts to keep guns from criminals and combat gangs and drug cartels.
Durbin sits on the Judiciary Committee, which has not yet scheduled a confirmation hearing.
Traver turned down an interview request from the Tribune, but his portrait emerges through information he gave the committee and interviews with acquaintances, who spoke on condition of anonymity since he has not won Senate approval.
Traver was born in New York state and grew up in Elgin and West Dundee, west of Chicago. In 1985 he graduated summa cum laude from Northern Illinois University, and in 1987 he joined the ATF as a street agent in Chicago.
Writing to the committee, Traver said the ATF's Chicago division and its partner agencies have "struck significant blows against some of the most prolific, entrenched and violent street gangs in Chicago, such as the Latin Kings, the Vice Lords and the Black Gangster Disciples."
Patrick Fitzgerald, U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Illinois, said Traver's response to gangs has been "excellent," noting that Aurora's murder rate plummeted after Traver helped crack down on the Insane Deuces there beginning in 2005. Aurora had 26 murders in 2002, but two in 2008.
Traver, a Navy veteran, has helped troops returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. He was diagnosed with prostate cancer at age 44 in 2008, and he's been active in peer support for others with the same cancer.
But the National Association for Gun Rights in Fort Collins, Colo., called Traver an "anti-gun thug … an enemy of liberty and an enemy of gun owners," in the words of its executive director, Dudley Brown. He said the group would "like to repeal the ability of the ATF to even exist."
The top Republican on the judiciary panel is Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, whose spokeswoman, Beth Pellett Levine, said the NRA's concerns, or those of any group, should be explored at a confirmation hearing.
The NRA lobbies Congress heavily and gives favored candidates big bucks. Its political action committee spent $14.8 million on federal elections in two years ending Dec. 31, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. It dropped $119,000 on Grassley's race alone and in November, he won a sixth term in the Senate.
Kim Geiger of the Tribune's Washington Bureau contributed to this report.