The Department of Justice is denying a claim that the ATF allowed the sale and transport of two guns into Mexico that were used to kill a Border Patrol agent in December.

In a letter sent on Jan. 27 to the director of the ATF, Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, wrote that members of the Judiciary Committee had received numerous reports that the ATF sanctioned the sale of three assault rifles in Glendale on Jan. 16, 2010 - two of which were used in a Dec. 14, 2010 gunfight northwest of Nogales that killed Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry.

In a Feb. 4 response to Grassley, Assistant Attorney General Ronald Weich of the U.S. Department of Justice said that allegation is false.

"ATF makes every effort to interdict weapons that have been purchased illegally and prevent their transportation to Mexico," Weich wrote.

Straw purchases - when gun smugglers pay somebody with no criminal record to buy a gun from a licensed dealer - make up a significant portion of illegal gun sales according to officials with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

Since its inception in 2006, the ATF's Project Gunrunner investigations have led to the seizure of more than 10,000 firearms and 1.1 million rounds of ammunition headed to Mexico, Weich wrote.

Weich also denied a claim in a Jan. 31 letter from Grassley that an ATF official in Phoenix retaliated against an agent who answered inquiries from Grassley's office.

"I also want to assure you that ATF has made no attempt to retaliate against any of its agents regarding this matter," Weich wrote. "We recognize the importance of protecting employees from retaliation relating to their disclosures of waste, fraud, and abuse."

Agent Terry, 40, was killed Dec. 14 during a shootout with suspected border bandits near Peck Canyon northwest of Nogales. Four illegal immigrants from Mexico were arrested that night in the area of the shooting and two more the next day but the U.S. Attorney's Office has not announced any criminal charges in relation to the shooting.

Asked about the investigation into Terry's death during a news conference on Tuesday, Customs and Border Protection commissioner Alan Bersin declined to comment, citing the ongoing investigation being carried out by the FBI.

FBI spokesman Manuel Johnson said the investigation is ongoing.

Terry, a three-year veteran of the agency, was the 10th agent to die on duty in the Border Patrol Tucson Sector since 1926 and the first agent shot to death since 1998.

"Like you," Weich wrote to Grassley, "we are deeply concerned by his murder and we are actively investigating this matter."

The Department of Justice promised Grassley a briefing on the matter but that has not yet occurred, said Beth Levine, Grassley's press secretary.

"There are many specific questions that need to be answered in full by the Justice Department as soon as possible," Levine wrote in an e-mail. "Senator Grassley has not yet received a briefing, and until getting further information no conclusions can be made."

Contact reporter Brady McCombs at or 573-4213.