The NRA's 'Fast and Furious' Gun Walking

Politics is full of ironies. But June 28, 2012, should be logged as one for the irony record book. On that day, Attorney General Eric Holder was cited for contempt of Congress for refusing to turn over documents to the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee investigating the botched "Fast and Furious" gun tracing operation conducted by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. Chief among the forces arrayed against Holder was the National Rifle Association, which pressured members of Congress to support the contempt citation. Among the NRA's fevered charges against Holder: "his history of anti-Second Amendment advocacy and enforcement actions," including support for a measure, beaten back by NRA supporters, to require gun dealers to report multiple long gun sales.

Yet at nearly the same time, a six-month investigation by Fortune Magazine revealed that the ATF did not engage in "gun walking" (that is, deliberately letting guns fall into the hands of Mexican criminals) after all. In fact, ATF agents were doing everything possible to try and bring prosecutions. But, according to the article, ATF agents "were hamstrung by prosecutors and weak laws, which stymied them at every turn." Existing law made it nearly impossible to bring charges against straw purchasers. To prosecutors, these cases were "hard to prove and unrewarding to prosecute, with minimal penalties attached."

But the rest of this tragic story is that it is the culmination, and logical conclusion, of the NRA's 30-year war against the ATF, aimed to hamstring, denude, emasculate, and hogtie the agency charged with administering the nation's gun laws. No other federal law enforcement agency has had to function under such relentless attacks.

In a 1981 NRA-produced film called It Can Happen Here, ATF agents were depicted as "Nazi Gestapos" and "jackbooted fascists." The following year, Rep. John Dingell, then an NRA Board member, called ATF agents "knaves and rogues," saying "I think they [the agents] are evil."

NRA demonization of the ATF reached a fever pitch in the early 1990s when it and other critics charged the ATF with murder and the persecution of innocent citizens. That criticism was fanned because of the ATF's role in the raid on the Branch Davidian cult near Waco, Texas, in 1993 (four ATF agents were killed and 20 wounded). In a full-page ad run in national newspapers, the NRA said that the ATF "deserves public contempt." Rep. Harold Volkmer, also an NRA Board member, called the ATF a "Rambo-rogue law enforcement" agency. Radio talk show host G. Gordon Liddy counseled his listeners to fire "head shots" at ATF agents who approached them because the agents "got a vest underneath."

These vituperative attacks subsided only after the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, in which ATF agents died. That attack occurred just weeks after NRA vice president Wayne LaPierre called the ATF "jack-booted government thugs... wearing Nazi bucket helmets and black storm trooper uniforms to attack law-abiding citizens" in a fund-raising letter.

NRA-led attacks on the ATF haven't been limited to verbal assaults. Working relentlessly in Congress, the ATF's size, budget, and operations have all been hamstrung. The agency has been barred, by law, from inspecting gun dealers more than once a year (even for previous law-breakers) and some violations were reduced to misdemeanors. The ATF is also barred by law from maintaining gun trace records in a computer database, meaning that, even today, gun traces must be done by hand from paper records. Further, the law does not require gun dealers to take inventory. For the last six years, the ATF has operated without a permanent head of the agency, thanks to the obstruction of NRA-backed senators.

According to the Washington Post, in 1972 the ATF had 2500 agents. By comparison, the DEA had 1500, the U.S. Marshals 1900, and the FBI 8700. In 2010, the DEA had 5000, federal Marshals 3300, and the FBI 13,000. The ATF still had 2500 agents. In all, it has 600 personnel to inspect 115,000 gun dealers, meaning that on average, a dealer is inspected once every ten years.

Taking all this into account, is it any wonder that the nearly 10,000 gun dealers found along the border between the U.S. and Mexico constitute a largely unregulated arms bazaar for Mexican drug gangs? As the ATF recently reported, of the over 99,000 guns recovered by the Mexican government from 2007-2011 and submitted for tracing, over 68,000 (about 70%) came from the U.S.

Sure, Congress deserves blame for enacting laws deliberately designed to keep the ATF from doing its job. But no one can dispute that these destructive and senseless policies exist thanks to the NRA. Just as the NRA continues to blame the ATF for the 2000 guns allegedly "walked" into Mexico, the NRA should take the real credit for the "walking" of hundreds of thousands of guns into Mexico, as American agents can do little more than watch.