Conservatives know that gun control is a futile endeavor. But even we gun nuts typically support some basic measures to keep weapons out of the wrong hands — for example, laws that forbid felons to own guns, laws that require firearms dealers to perform instant background checks on buyers, and laws against “straw purchasing,” that is, buying a gun legally and then selling it to someone who’s not allowed to have it.
Someone such as, say, a trafficker who supplies a Mexican drug cartel.
And yet the Obama administration’s Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) intentionally allowed straw purchases at Arizona gun shops near the Mexican border. This project, now defunct, was called Operation Fast and Furious.
It was a sting operation of sorts, and while it’s not yet clear who designed it, the ATF’s plan gives us some hints about its creator:
Step 1: Let Mexican cartels buy American guns and use them in crimes.
Step 2: ?
Step 3: Bring down the cartels!
Yes, all signs point to the Underpants Gnomes, the cartoon crime syndicate from South Park whose business plan is as follows:
Phase 1: Collect underpants.
Phase 2: ?
Phase 3: Profit!
This is perhaps too flippant a way of discussing a government operation that supplied thousands of firearms to violent criminals, including two guns that were found at the scene of a shootout that killed a Border Patrol agent. But based on what we know of Fast and Furious, it doesn’t shortchange the logic behind the program one bit.
There is no question that the Mexican drug trade has grown incredibly bloody in recent years, and there is no question that some of the guns the cartels use come from the U.S. To combat this trend, the ATF works with federally licensed gun dealers, who report suspected straw purchasers. Typically, the ATF questions the suspects, interdicts the weapons, and if possible makes arrests. Sometimes this happens right at the gun store, while other times, ATF agents let straw purchasers lead them to stash houses or third-party buyers — but, in keeping with their training, the agents always make sure not to let the guns escape entirely.
That’s not what happened under Fast and Furious. Rather, dealers were instructed to sell guns to straw purchasers, and the ATF recorded the serial numbers in its Suspect Gun Database. Often, the ATF or local law-enforcement officers followed the buyers to see where they went. But at that point, they just let the guns “walk.” Perhaps 2,000 firearms — including AK-47 variants and .50-caliber sniper rifles — escaped the ATF’s watchful eye in this way.
There were no tracking devices in the guns, so there was no way the weapons would lead the ATF to a cartel stronghold. Instead, the ATF simply waited until the guns turned up in the hands of criminals, hoping that the Mexican government or local U.S. law enforcement would submit them to the bureau for tracing — completing the circle back to the gun dealer who’d cooperated with the ATF and the straw purchaser the ATF let walk away. Even then, the ATF continued to let the straw purchasers buy guns.