These Trump DOJ Appointees Could Be Instrumental in Shaping National Firearm Laws

Politics
Here’s what we know about four pro-gun lawyers that the White House has installed at a critical federal agency.
Photo by: Jim LoScalzo/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images

Jesse Panuccio, the third-highest ranking official at the Department of Justice, has argued to allow firearms sales to people under age 21 and in defense of a Florida law that prohibited doctors from asking patients if they owned guns.

Noel Francisco, Donald Trump’s nominee for solicitor general, has described the Second Amendment as “a structural protection that’s intended to protect all other rights.”

And Tom Wheeler, now a senior lawyer in the DOJ’s civil rights division, once gave a speech with the title: “Arming Teachers to Prevent Tragedies, Responding to Sandy Hook.”

These three attorneys are among two dozen appointees that the Trump administration is known to have tapped for top Justice Department posts as part of “beachhead teams.” Taking a cue from ProPublica, which disclosed many of the names, we examined the gun-rights records of some the newly installed officials at the department.

Most of the DOJ appointees whose backgrounds The Trace reviewed had neither clear ties to the gun lobby or the firearms industry, nor had they publicly staked out strong positions on gun issues. But these three lawyers — plus a fourth, Brett Talley, appointed to the Office of Legal Policy — bring pro-gun views to a federal agency that has significant sway over national firearms laws and regulations.

Already, in the first months of Trump’s term, the Justice Department has made two quiet moves toward loosening gun restrictions.

In early March, DOJ lawyers submitted motions in two pending lawsuits over a prohibition that bars everyone except hunters from carrying loaded firearms on the 12 million acres of land owned by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.The motions suggest that the DOJ is hoping to settle with the plaintiffs and reverse an Obama administration policy, which was to fight the lawsuits. In another case, the DOJ missed a deadline to file a response brief in a lawsuit challenging the federal gun ban for convicted felons.

Here’s what else we know about Trump’s appointees to the Justice Department, and what influence they might have in their positions:

A solicitor general who does not have a personal interest in guns but embraces the NRA’s view of the Second Amendment

Last November, the week after Election Day, the conservative legal group the Federalist Society held a little-noticed panel at the National Lawyers Convention in Washington, D.C. The discussion surrounded the 2008 Supreme Court ruling in District of Columbia v. Heller, the landmark gun rights case which struck down the district’s ban on handguns and hugely  expanded the Court’s interpretation of Second Amendment rights.

Between talks by conservative law professors came Francisco, a corporate lawyer, who started his address by wondering aloud why he had been invited to the panel, noting that he didn’t specialize in gun law. He joked that he had only read the Second Amendment the night before, and “found it very compelling.” And he made clear he had little personal experience with guns: “I have fired a firearm three times in my life,” he said. “I am not somebody who owns guns, I am not somebody who likes firearms, I am not somebody who ever intends to own one.”

Francisco quickly moved to the heart of his argument: That the Second Amendment is “a structural protection that’s intended to protect all other rights,” and that “is fundamental to all of the liberty we enjoy in this country” — a right, he said, that you don’t need to fire a gun to appreciate. It is a position that closely echoes the National Rifle Association’s argument that the Second Amendment is “America’s First Freedom.”

A few months after the talk, Trump announced that he would appoint Francisco as solicitor general. The solicitor general argues for the president in front of the Supreme Court and makes crucial decisions about appealing cases up and down the court system. In the last days of the Obama administration, the acting solicitor general appealed to the Supreme Court in an attempt to undo a lower court’s ruling allowing convicted violent felons to own guns — in the same case the Trump administration missed its deadline.

“The solicitor general is known to be the tenth justice,” said Adam Winkler, a UCLA law school professor and gun policy expert. “It’s a very influential person in shaping constitutional law.”

Francisco and his deputies can be expected to argue cases over the next four years that will likely include some of the big unresolved questions in gun law, including how far the Heller decision goes in restricting gun bans, how strictly assault weapons can be regulated, and whether states can impose safety standards on gun manufacturers — all issues in which the Obama Justice Department had argued for more controls.

A “rising star” with several prominent gun cases under his belt

From 2007 to 2011, Panuccio was an associate at Cooper & Kirk, one of the most prominent Second Amendment law firms in the country.

Panuccio was on a team who represented the NRA in several major cases. The most high-profile of these cases involved the NRA suing the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and Attorney General Eric Holder in 2010, arguing that the federal age limit for purchasing a handgun — 21-years old —  was unconstitutional. The age limit was upheld in district and appeals courts.

In another case, Panuccio’s team filed a brief backing a challenge to a Chicago law banning firing ranges within city limits. The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals eventually ruled against the city.

Panuccio later served in the administration of Governor Rick Scott of Florida, where he helped defend a state law banning doctors from asking patients if they owned guns. As The Trace reported, the law was struck down by an appeals court in February. He also worked as a lawyer on the presidential campaign of  Senator Ted Cruz of Texas.

“He is a rising star in the conservative legal movement,” said Jason Gonzalez, a Tallahassee lawyer who works with Panuccio as co-chairman of the annual Florida conference of the Federalist Society. Gonzalez described Panuccio as a staunch defender of the Second Amendment who “put a premium on textualist, originalist types of jurists in the mold of Scalia and Gorsuch” in recommending judges.

Two seasoned lawyers keen on loosening gun laws

Wheeler, who was named principal deputy assistant attorney general for the Civil Rights Division, was Vice President Mike Pence’s general counsel when Pence was the governor of Indiana. In his new position, Wheeler will be responsible for enforcing federal law about employment discrimination, police misconduct and voting rights.

As Mother Jones first reported, several of Wheeler’s past speaking appearances were listed on (and later removed from) the website of his former employer, the law firm Frost Brown Todd. Among them, from 2013:  “Armed Teachers in Schools, a Legislative Overview,” and “Arming Teachers to Prevent Tragedies, Responding to Sandy Hook.” A DOJ spokesperson declined to make any materials about those speeches available.

Talley, a former speechwriter for the 2012 Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney and a former deputy solicitor general for Alabama, was appointed deputy assistant attorney general to the Office of Legal Policy, which sets policy for the Justice Department and assists in recommending federal judgeship candidates.

In Alabama, Talley worked on several gun rights cases, including what may be one of the most significant cases since Heller: Peruta v. County of San Diego. That case could decide whether civilians have a right to carry concealed guns in public. In a brief representing  Alabama and 20 other states, Talley argued that San Diego’s licensing policy “destroys the Second Amendment’s right to bear arms.”

The Trace