The National Rifle Association believes the gun-smuggling investigation known as Operation Fast and Furious was a vast conspiracy to promote tougher gun control laws.
House Democrats appear intent on giving that theory some help.
On Wednesday, Democrats gathered to demand that Speaker John A. Boehner cancel Thursday’s vote to make Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. the first sitting cabinet member held in contempt of Congress – and to call for more gun control.
Representative Carolyn B. Maloney, Democrat of New York, pressed for consideration of her “Stop Gun Trafficking and Strengthen Law Enforcement Act” – H.R. 2554 – which would crackdown on straw buyers who purchase multiple weapons for criminal organizations. Representative Adam B. Schiff, Democrat of California, called for legislation to put teeth into existing penalties on straw purchasers. Representative Mike Quigley, Democrat of Illinois, brought up an issue that has lingered since the Columbine High School shootings, the “gun show loophole” that allows shoppers at gun shows to buy weapons without a background check.
“Instead of going after guns, this Congress is going after the attorney general,” Ms. Maloney said.
The Fast and Furious controversy has always been peculiar, a Republican inquiry into a botched gun-running investigation whose logical conclusion would be legislation to improve firearms databases and possibly require gun registration. Republicans have never wanted that, but they have wanted federal officials held accountable for an operation that allowed guns to be purchased in Arizona gun stores that were trafficked into Mexico, where they often ended up in the hands of violent drug cartels.
The gun lobby – and some Republicans – say that the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives hatched the operation to bolster its contention that existing trafficking laws are too weak. And Representative Darrell Issa of California, who has led the Fast and Furious investigation, has tried to steer the inquiry clear of any gun control talk.
But the issue keeps cropping up. With the N.R.A. prepared to score the contempt vote as a measure of lawmakers’ fealty to gun rights, Mr. Schiff predicted two dozen Democrats will likely vote for contempt rather than jeopardize their 100 percent rating with the group. Representative John Barrow of Georgia, one of the most endangered Democrats running for re-election, announced Wednesday he would join Republicans on the vote, the second Democrat to go public so far.
In the meantime, Democrats have tried to hold off the contempt vote. Obama administration officials summoned Republicans to the White House to show them a representative sample of the documents they were willing to turn over if the Republican leadership guaranteed a no contempt vote. Republicans declined, saying they would not offer a blank check without knowing exactly what documents would be turned over and which would remain locked away.
“Unfortunately they are not willing to show the truth about what happened,” Mr. Boehner said Wednesday.
House Democrats on Wednesday issued a letter to Mr. Boehner pointing to what they said were 100 serious flaws in the contempt resolution and calling for the vote to be postponed.
“I urge you to take a direct and personal role in trying to resolve this issue in a way that honors our Constitutional obligation,” wrote Representative Elijah Cummings, Democrat of Maryland. “As an officer specifically named in the Constitution, you have a responsibility to set aside politics — particularly on an occasion like this. A decision to take such an unprecedented step should not be rushed based on the current record of partisan and unsubstantiated allegations.”
Mr. Boehner said he saw no reason to pull back.
“We’d really rather have the attorney general and the president work with us to get to the bottom of a very serious issue,” he said.
“The United States government ran a gun-running operation that resulted in hundreds of deaths,” he said, referring to the fact that a gun that the A.T.F. allowed to travel to Mexico was found at the scene of the killing of a United States Border Patrol agent, Brian Terry. Guns linked to Fast and Furious were found at the scene.
He continued, “Brian Terry’s family has the right to know what happened. The American people have the right to know what happened. And we are going to proceed.”