Congress, NRA, gun-rights advocates largely at fault for Fast and Furious

Eric Holder

Katherine Eban’s fantastic expose on the “Fast and Furious” scandal is a must-read piece. I hate to spoil, but because so many people won’t read it and therefore won’t finally understand what happened, and so many debates over Fast and Furious are based on false information (some of it intentional) and therefore pointless, I want to go into some of the criticism of that program and call out portions of Eban’s story that definitively refutes that criticism.

One of the more startling facts in Eban’s story is that while Fast and Furious monitored the legal sale of nearly 2,000 firearms to straw buyers working for Mexican drug cartels and other offenders, nearly that many firearms are (also legally) sold for the same purposes every single day in the United States.

The reason that the cartels and other offenders buy weapons here and smuggle them south is that these weapons are banned, and their sale is illegal, in Mexico. If that doesn’t provide significant weight to arguments that gun regulation works and would help the problems here and in Mexico, what does?

A key point that absolutely must not be missed in all of that (there are many key points) is that these sales are legal. All a person needs to buy an unlimited number of firearms is an ID proving they are at least 18 years old, a clean criminal history, and money. Lots of money. Even in stacks of cash. Eban recount’s examples from Fast and Furious where people who were too young to buy beer, were spending as much as $20,000 in cash to buy 20 semi-automatic weapons at a time — which is completely legal.

There are no federal laws against buying firearms in the United States and selling them in/moving them to other countries, like Mexico. Although laws do require buyers to affirm that they are buying guns for themselves, it’s almost impossible to prove straw sales when any person can claim that they bought a weapon for themselves but changed their mind, and decided to sell it five minutes later.

The National Rifle Association and pro-gun advocates in Congress and other powerful lobbying positions have made certain of that. According to Eban, laws authorizing the ATF specifically forbid it from even creating an electronic database to track gun sales.

As the story unwinds, you’ll find time and again that virtually every failure of the ATF’s program was the result of weak gun laws in the United States.

Arizona, where most weapons to be trafficked to Mexico are bought, has the weakest gun laws in the entire nation. Eban found that the Phoenix area alone has 853 federally licensed firearm dealers, enough to place 17 in every state in the union. The combination of weak gun laws at the state and federal level, and the sheer number of gun dealers in the state, makes Arizona a virtual Sam’s Club of guns for militaristic and ultra-violent drug cartels.

One could say that of all the problems that lead to this mess, the two largest are the state of Arizona, and severe overreach by pro-gun advocates that have traveled beyond constitutional ownership rights to just short of de facto political advoacy on behalf of Mexican drug cartels.

Much of the criticism of Fast and Furious is misguided. When comparisons are made between Wide Receiver, a program that intentionally walked guns to the cartels during the latter half of the Bush administration, and Fast and Furious, the usual rebuttal is that the Mexican government was involved in the first program, but not the latter.

As if that made a difference in Wide Receiver, which intentionally walked over 450 weapons to Mexico.

What’s little understood and yet is the key theme of Eban’s investigation, is that Fast and Furious didn’t involve the Mexican government because unlike Wide Receiver, it had never intended to walk guns to the cartels in the first place. What’s even less understood is that guns ended up walking to the cartels under the ATF’s watch because the ATF was prevented from making arrests and seizing weapons. Almost all the sales they were investigating are legal in the United States, precisely because of the weak gun laws in Arizona and from Congress, at the behest of so-called gun-rights advocates and the NRA.

This misguided sideshow over “what the President knew, and when did he know it”, and the apparent politically motivated persecution of Attorney General Eric Holder, is based on testimony and evidence from three ATF agents who, according to documents reviewed by Katherine Eban, had a personal and petty grudge against their supervisor, Dave Voth.

The only instance of real and actual gun-walking occurred when Agent John Dodson was caught by Voth operating a rogue operation outside of Fast and Furious. Dodson opened his own case of a trafficker named Isaiah Fernandez, while his superior, Voth, was on temporary leave from the ATF. Dodson ordered a dealer to sell guns to his suspect while he taped their conversations, without his supervisor’s approval, without the approval of a prosecutor, and possibly violating state and federal wiretapping laws without a warrant.

Voth didn’t catch Dodson’s scheme until a month later, and shut it down until Dodson went over Voth’s head with a written request to continue, which he amazingly received.

There is no evidence anywhere that Voth’s superior did anything other than make that decision under their own authority. There is no evidence that the ATF chief knew about it, or Attorney General Holder, or President Obama. Remember, the first time guns were walked out of that office, it was a rogue operation that stunningly didn’t result in anyone being fired or charged.

The prosecutor involved in Fast and Furious, after the rogue operation was shut and before Voth’s supervisor approved it for another sale, specifically told the ATF that they couldn’t and wouldn’t approve of gun-walking without briefing the U.S. Attorney for the region, which as far as I can tell never happened (lending evidence to the argument that AG Holder and Obama never knew what was happening, and certainly didn’t approve of it.)

This part of the story shows the kind of character Agent Dodson had, the man that Darrell Issa and the GOP are leaning heavily on as their star witness and information provider:

On June 1, Dodson used $2,500 in ATF funds to purchase six AK Draco pistols from local gun dealers, and gave these to Fernandez, who reimbursed him and gave him $700 for his efforts. Two days later, according to case records, Dodson-who would later testify that in his previous experience, “if even one [gun] got away from us, nobody went home until we found it”-left on a scheduled vacation without interdicting the guns. That day, Voth wrote to remind him that money collected as evidence needed to be vouched for within five days. Dodson e-mailed back, his sarcasm fully restored: “Do the orders define a ‘day’? Is it; a calendar day? A business day or work day….? An Earth day (because a day on Venus takes 243 Earth days which would mean that I have plenty of time)?”

The guns were never recovered, the case was later closed, and Fernandez was never charged.

Dodson, remember, told CBS and Issa/Grassley that Voth ordered him repeatedly not to make arrests and seize guns. Yet the documents show definitively that it was Dodson who was walking guns in a rogue operation, and then a sanctioned operation that didn’t get approval from the ATF chief, AG Holder, President Obama, or even a single U.S. Attorney, and then he went on vacation.

Internal documents in Eban’s report show a division between Voth and his agents, and the new agents which included Dodson, was based almost entirely on petty and childish behavior by the new group that wouldn’t follow orders, or even do their jobs.

When the U.S. Attorney’s Office (USAO) ordered the ATF not to make any arrests or seize any guns (ATF agents lose their official capacity immunity if they ignore these orders, and can be sued), the ATF came up with the idea of wiretapping some of its suspected straw buyers to gather evidence that they intended to funnel the weapons to Mexican drug cartels.

The prosecutor working with ATF is repeatedly described in Eban’s story as a strong pro-gun advocate who according to one ATF source, was seen at a gun show actively helping a dealer buy weapons. That prosecutor, according to documents, took weeks to get the wiretap approved, even though the wait time for wiretaps is normally hours, or days at most.

When the tap was finally approved, agents like Dodson whined at having to spend time listening to them, even though they were the ATF’s only shot at being able to make arrests and seizures.

The entire story is well worth reading. Not everyone comes out vindicated here. The prosecutors, USAO, and some of the ATF’s supervisors outside of Fast and Furious all look pretty horrible, as does Congress, the NRA, and Issa.

Here are some of the other key points:

* Two of the weapons recovered at Agent Brian Terry’s murder scene were known to the ATF via a fax from a dealer reporting a suspicious purchase. That fax came in on the Saturday of a MLK weekend, meaning it didn’t get read until Tuesday, long after the guns were gone.

* When Fast and Furious wrapped up, the ATF submitted a list of 31 names supported by 49 pages of documents to prosecutors they wanted to arrest. Prosecutors sat on the list for seven months without lifting a finger.

* Federal prosecutors were accused of continually making up bullshit excuses to decline cases and draw up indictments. One of those people on the list was Jaime Avila, the person who bought the weapons found at Agent Terry’s murder scene. Prosecutors actually dropped Avila’s name from the ATF’s list due to “lack of evidence”, only to indict him 24 hours after the murder of Brian Terry. Avila, it turns out, was an easy case. He plead guilty to the charges and never even required a trial.

* ATF agents found out that one straw buyer was living off food stamps, yet had spent $300,000 to buy 476 firearms in a six month period. Prosecutors told the ATF they couldn’t even charge the man with food stamp fraud, much less for firearms trafficking.

* To illustrate the difficulties faced by the ATF, it would be legal to buy 500 weapons from a dealer in Arizona, only to sell them five minutes later to a drug cartel member, so long as that member doesn’t have a criminal record.

* Darrell Issa has said that Fast and Furious could have ended and prosecutions followed, after 650 weapons sales. He’s never acknowledged to my knowledge that the ATF was barred by prosecutors from making arrests and seizing weapons, according to the USAO, because weak gun laws in the U.S. which Issa probably want weakened even further meant that most of those sales simply were not crimes.

* Gun seizures by the ATF have dropped 90% since the investigation into Fast and Furious began, which means gun trafficking to Mexican drug cartels has increased wildly as a result of the GOP’s investigation.

If anything, the ATF (besides insubordinate Dobson and the outside supervisor who signed off on one instance of gun walking) comes out looking like an underfunded and understaffed agency with very little power to do anything about the problems of gun trafficking, completely hamstrung by Congress, the NRA, and states with weak gun laws. The prosecutors look absolutely horrible. The Obama administration and Depatment of Justice, for what it’s worth, seemed totally unaware of the one gun-walking incident, just like the ATF chief.

What conclusions to draw from all of this? It’s possible that if the United States had stronger gun laws, Agent Brian Terry would still be alive today. It’s possible that if the pro-gun prosecutor working with the ATF had done his job, Jaime Avila, the man who bought the weapons that likely killed Terry, would have been arrested immediately and the guns recovered.

It’s likely that if gun laws were as strict in the United States as they are in Mexico — without debating the pros and cons of that — that drug cartels wouldn’t treat dealers in Arizona like a Sam’s Club for their war against the Mexican government.

What’s really important in all of this, though, is how obvious the facts make it that Issa’s investigation is a political witch hunt. Regardless of whether or not the ATF had run Fast and Furious, all those weapons would still have made their way into the hands of the cartels, because like it or not, weak gun laws in America made most of those sales completely legal. And despite the program, as many as 2,000 weapons are making their way into cartel hands every single day.

That number is probably higher, with the Issa investigation putting the ATF back on its heels, making the problem significantly worse.

It’s clear that the only actual instances of gun walking were by a rogue agent, and then authorized only by a mid-level ATF supervisor just above and outside of the Fast and Furious program, carried out by an agent that immediately went on vacation after handing guns over to the cartels, and then later went crying to the GOP and CBS about how he’s the good guy and it was all the ATF’s fault.

It’s clear that Fast and Furious, like Wide Receiver, was a failure. Not because of the Bush and Obama administration, or ATF ineptitude. But because America allows just about anyone to buy a gun in this country, and that includes members of Mexican drug cartels, so long as they ask someone else to pretty please buy it for them.

To make it all worse, Darrell Issa went on Fox News recently to claim that Fast and Furious was part of a liberal conspiracy to restrict gun rights, when it’s actually the decades-long loosening of gun restrictions supported by people like Issa that has resulted in this mess in the first place.

The failure of Fast and Furious was inherent to the state of gun laws in the United States. Not only have politicians with terribly misplaced priorities in Congress not passed sensible regulations to prevent gun trafficking, they’ve worked hard to gut and neuter existing regulations under the false pretense that they’re protecting the rights of Americans to own guns. Organizations like the NRA have worked tirelessly and obsessively to weaken gun regulations to the point where they are nothing but radical extremists, also hiding behind the veil.

The people most responsible for this pathetic and inexcusable state of affairs which necessitated Fast and Furious and ultimately caused its downfall, are the same people trying to persecute the Obama administration for something they had little, of anything, to do with in. According to Issa’s statements and actions, that’s in service of further gutting gun regulations and increasing “gun rights”.

Are you fucking kidding me?

Paul Tenny

Paul Tenny

I'm not a journalist but I do it anyway. I cover elections and have interviewed television writers and producers.
Paul Tenny

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