Since details about the Fast and Furious scandal first started to emerge, the biggest question has been: Who in their right mind would think that letting criminals walk away with guns would be a good way to fight crime? Thus far, the only explanation seems to be this: The Justice Department thought that tying American guns to Mexican crime scenes would be useful in its attempts to round up cartel kingpins — useful enough that it was worth giving guns to criminals without bothering to track the weapons as they changed hands.
That’s not very satisfying, of course. So, some Fast and Furious critics have searched for a better one — not by analyzing the evidence, but by concocting a conspiracy theory: specifically, that the Obama administration allowed the guns to go to Mexico deliberately in order to increase gun crime there, so it could cite that crime as a reason for more gun control here. And unfortunately, Fast and Furious’s lead critic, House Oversight Committee chairman Darrell Issa, has joined them.
Here’s what Issa told a National Rifle Association conference in April:
Could it be that what they really were thinking of was, in fact, to use this — this walking of guns — in order to promote an assault-weapons ban? Many think so, and they haven’t come up with an explanation that would cause any of us not to agree.
This comment went largely unnoticed at the time, but when ABC’s Jake Tapper pushed him to explain it this past Sunday, Issa backed off only slightly:
We have e-mails from people involved in this that are talking about using what they’re finding here to support the — basically assault-weapons ban or greater reporting.
So chicken or egg? We don’t know which came first; we probably never will. We do know that during this — this Fast and Furious operation — there were e-mails in which they’re saying we can use this as part of additional reporting or things like assault-weapons ban. So the people involved saw the benefit of what — what they were gathering. Whether or not that was their original purpose, we probably will never know.
Issa went on to make his position even more muddled — claiming to take officials “at their word” that their initial intentions were good, but noting that some “opportunists” in the Justice Department went on to use the case to promote gun control.
Fast and Furious is a horrific scandal. The public deserves answers as to who devised the operation and what they hoped to accomplish. But the theory that Fast and Furious was devised to promote gun control goes far beyond the evidence, as Issa basically admitted to ABC this weekend, and it does not withstand scrutiny. The chairman should be ashamed to have dabbled in it, and should fully retract his initial comment, unless he has a considerable amount of evidence he has not shared with the public.
The theory goes something like this. It is a well-known fact that the Obama administration supports gun control. It is also known that the administration (and the media) loves to claim, falsely, that the overwhelming majority of guns used in Mexican crime come from the U.S. Further, as Issa explained on ABC, leaked e-mails reveal that at least one Justice Department official considered using the Fast and Furious case as a source of anecdotes showing that American guns are a major cause of Mexican gun crime. These anecdotes would be used to support a requirement that gun stores in some states tell the federal government whenever a single customer bought many guns. It also seems likely that the official knew at the time that his department had intentionally let the guns go.
Add all this together, and factor in the lack of any other convincing explanation for Fast and Furious, and we arrive at the conclusion that the Obama administration got tired of pushing gun control using bad statistics about gun crime in Mexico and decided to create some better ones instead.
Or not. As Issa conceded, there is no direct evidence that anyone involved in the creation of Fast and Furious intended to increase gun crime in Mexico. The fact that someone looked to Fast and Furious for anecdotal evidence after the fact says almost nothing about the origins of the program. And on closer inspection, this theory isn’t any more understandable than the one that doesn’t require accusing the administration of murdering scores of Mexican citizens and at least one American law-enforcement agent for political gain. Even if we assume the Obama administration places no value whatsoever on human life, it’s hard to see how the gun-control scheme would have passed a cost-benefit analysis.
First, the benefits are negligible. The Obama administration and its accomplices in the media have already been more than willing to twist statistics in order to claim that most guns involved in Mexican drug violence come from the U.S. Content with their falsehood, why would they need to inflate the real numbers to back it up?
Moreover, if the goal was to increase the overall use of U.S. guns in Mexican crimes, Fast and Furious wasn’t nearly large enough: In most years, more than 10,000 guns used in Mexican crimes are traced to U.S. sources. Fast and Furious let somewhere in the vicinity of 2,000 guns go, but it will take years for them to be recovered at crime scenes, and some never will be.
And if the goal was simply to accumulate anecdotes about American guns that were used by Mexican criminals, it’s not clear why the Justice Department would need a richer source than the 10,000 weapons that are traced to the U.S. each year without Fast and Furious. (In pointing out that the Left overstates the extent of the gunrunning problem along the border, conservatives often forget that there really is a problem.)
And second, the potential costs of such a scheme are enormous. Like most putative conspiracies, it would require too many people to keep their mouths shut. Even if we assume that only a couple of people would know about the program’s true motivations, plenty of others would need to stay silent about the ATF’s tactics and the Justice Department’s spin on the case. Not only would ATF agents need to watch hundreds of guns walk without blowing the whistle or letting rumors spread, but gun-store owners would need to remain mum as people trafficked guns under ATF supervision without being arrested, and Justice insiders would need to stay quiet as press releases touted anecdotes about gun trafficking that had actually been facilitated by the ATF. Further, any time a law-enforcement officer contacted a gun store to investigate a firearm that had been sold there, the officer might learn that the ATF had instructed the owner to let the gun go.
It was always just a matter of time before Fast and Furious became public knowledge, and at that point the statistics and anecdotes become useless as gun-control propaganda — and a scandal is born. It’s hard to see why the gun-control-conspiracy explanation is more believable than the botched-sting-operation one, even if the latter seems like it could be the work of the Underpants Gnomes from South Park, and even operating under the assumption that the Obama administration cares not a whit for human life.
Unless far more evidence surfaces to support it, we should put this theory to rest.
— Robert VerBruggen is a deputy managing editor of National Review.