If you’ve paid any attention to the news in the last few months you’ll have heard of the “Fast and Furious” ATF/DOJ scandal.
It’s become a political firestorm of Congressional sub-committee hearings and subpoenas, angry accusations and evasions, uninformed narratives and politicized posturings.
It’s been a giant, overblown, and distorted mess.
Let’s back up a bit.
The U.S. has no small part to play in the Mexican drug war/civil war that has claimed 47,000 lives in the last five years. We buy the cartel’s illicit drugs and in return we sell them the guns they use to murder civilians and one another. More specifically, Arizona sells the guns.
In Arizona, as long as you’re 18 and can pass a criminal background check, you buy a 50-caliber tripod-mounted sniper rifle. You can buy as many as the store has in stock and walk out with them that day. And you can do this from one of the 853 federally licensed firearms dealers in the Phoenix area alone. And, by using “straw purchasers”—people who buy guns for other people—that’s exactly what the cartels do.
It’s up to Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF) agents to stem the flow of guns. One of the ways they did this was through a sting operation—dubbed “Fast and Furious”— set up to gather information on these “straw purchasers.” Indeed, they collected reams of surveillance evidence on these shady buyers. According to a six-month investigation by Fortune Magazine, ATF agents were watching “a group of buyers, some not even old enough to buy beer, whose members were plunking down as much as $20,000 in cash to purchase up to 20 semiautomatics at a time, and then delivering the weapons to others.”
And that’s where it gets tricky.
The dominant narrative of the “Fast and Furious” scandal holds that the ATF didn’t arrest these low-level purchasers when they had the chance—they intentionally allowed them to “walk” into Mexico in hopes of arresting key figures in the Mexican cartels. But then they lost track of the guns. Then a DEA agent named Brian Terry was murdered by smugglers and two assault rifles at the crime scene were ones that’d been sold to a “Fast and Furious” suspect.
But according to the Fortune article, ATF agents did not engage in “gun walking” policies at all. In fact, they strove to arrest straw purchasers but were “hamstrung by prosecutors and weak laws, which stymied them at every turn.” According to the Fortune article the “Fast and Furious” operation was at the mercy of federal and state prosecutors. ATF agents repeatedly submitted evidence to prosecutors, but because there are no federal statutes outlaws firearms trafficking, and because it’s incredibly difficult to prosecute “straw purchasers” in Arizona, and because of a shameful number of personal, bureaucratic, and political reasons, prosecutors never attempted to indict a single suspect until Brian Terry was murdered.
This is unacceptable, and worthy of congressional hearings—if only those hearings weren’t politicized theatre and actually focused on the root cause of the tragedy. If we really wanted to do something about guns falling into the wrong hands, we would have laws that both the ATF and federal and state prosecutors would use without hesitation to bust these “straw purchasers.” The WASR-10 assault rifles that were found at the scene of Brian Terry’s murder were sold—completely legally—to a methamphetamine-using transient before, lo and behold, they “fell” into the hands of smugglers. But, of course, any talk of increased gun-laws is now political poison. The cause of the tragedy, then, is all of ours to share.
By Nathaniel Brodie