Does Holding Eric Holder in Contempt Miss the Boat?

Holder contempt vote shifts focus away from problem of guns smuggled into Mexico

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The United States House of Representatives is expected to vote Thursday on whether to hold Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt of Congress, but some wonder if lawmakers are missing the mark on Fast and Furious.

Legislators on both sides have invoked the memory of Brian Terry, the U.S. Border Patrol Agent who was killed with a weapon from the gun-walking scandal, but his family worries even his memory has gotten lost in all of the Capitol Hill drama.

"He is a political football," says Terry's cousin Robert Heyer, the Chairman of the Brian Terry Foundation. "This has become a partisan fight when it shouldn't have."

Heyer says the Terry family wants answers above all else on how their son was killed.

"I just really don't understand and the family doesn't understand why they just cannot tell us and identify who was responsible, and hold those folks accountable," Heyer said. "The mere holding someone in contempt, if it doesn't bring us answers, what is the point?"

But while the Terry family wants answers, Democrats say focusing on reforming the country's gun laws to protect future border patrol agents against weapons crimes would be a better than fixating on missing paperwork. [Marco Rubio Calls for Holder to Resign.]

Holder is accused of failing to turn over thousands of pages of documents subpoenaed by the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.

"They have missed the boat," said New York Democrat Rep. Carolyn Maloney, a sponsor of legislation to crack down on the flow of weapons from the U.S. to Mexico. "The ongoing violence in Mexico has been fueled in large part by guns that originated in America."

During Operation Fast and Furious, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives purposely sold 2,000 weapons to known arms traffickers. But according to an ATF report released in April, that's just a fraction of the more than 68,000 guns found at Mexican crime scenes that were smuggled from the U.S.

The 2,000 guns related to Operation Fast and Furious account for less than 5 percent of the U.S.-based guns found in Mexico over the last five years.

Dennis Henigan, the Vice President for law and policy at the Brady Center, an advocacy group committed to stopping gun violence, says "the same people who get so charged up about the 2,000 guns in Fast and Furious have done nothing to curb the trafficking problem that led to Fast and Furious in the first place."

Mexico has very strong gun laws," Henigan says. "So if the [drug cartels] can't get guns in their home turf, then they follow the path of least resistance." [See a collection of political cartoons on the Democratic Party.]

Cartels rely on straw buyers, individuals who purchase multiple guns legally in the states and then turn them over to be trafficked across the border.

"These purchases are made possible by lax gun laws in the United States," Maloney said.

It's not illegal for someone to buy multiple assault rifles at one time, but an executive order enacted by the Obama administration seeks to clamp down on suspicious behavior. Since the assault weapons ban expired during the Bush administration, the president has enacted a provision that requires more than 8,000 gun dealers along the Mexican border to alert federal officials if an individual is buying multiple assault rifles over a five-day period.

Since enacting the policy, ATF estimates the reporting rule has helped them to investigate more than 100 straw buying cases and opened up 25 for prosecution. [Read Debate Club: Should Eric Holder Lose His Job?]

But it may not be enough, leaders say.

Mexican President Felipe Calderon has repeatedly called for Congress to strengthen U.S. gun laws to curb violence in his country.

"There is one issue where Mexico needs your cooperation and that is stopping the flow of assault weapons and other deadly arms across the border," Calderon said during a joint session of Congress. "Believe me, many of these guns are not going to Americans; instead dozens are ending up in the hands of criminals."