What Set the A.T.F. and an Airport Leader on the Path to a Deadly Encounter?

The loud noises outside their bedroom door woke them before dawn. Bryan Malinowski bolted up and looked at his wife, Maer. “Stay back,” she remembers him saying after he reached into a drawer for his gun and loaded it.

He crept into a hallway in their home in Little Rock, Ark., and saw figures in the darkness. He started shooting, and was met with return fire.

The people shooting back at him were agents with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, executing a search warrant on suspicion that Mr. Malinowski had repeatedly sold guns without a license. What made this different from many such confrontations was that Mr. Malinowski was a respected official in the community, the director of Little Rock’s airport.

Mr. Malinowski shot an agent in the foot. As the agents fired back, a bullet struck Mr. Malinowski, 53, in the head, and two days later, he died in a hospital. His death has been met with outrage by his family, friends and gun rights supporters in Arkansas and beyond, who say the raid on March 19 was ill-conceived, unnecessary and a shocking case of government overreach.

“Why couldn’t this be avoided?” Ms. Malinowski asked in a recent interview at her home, where newly patched bullet holes lined the olive-toned walls.

Republicans in Congress are asking the same question. In a hearing on Thursday, members of the House Judiciary Committee grilled the director of the A.T.F., Steven M. Dettelbach, about the case, one of the latest tension points in the country’s bitter divide on access to guns.

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