With days–perhaps hours–to go before President Obama announces recommendations from Vice President Biden’s gun violence task force, battles lines have already been drawn.
Most dramatically, with the heartrending burials of 20 innocent first-graders and six of their heroic educators as a backdrop, NRA top lobbyist Wayne LaPierre issued a belligerent and self-pitying demand for yet more weaponry, and the posting of armed guards at every school in America. But as the nation debates Obama’s proposals—and LaPierre’s—it will be important to reexamine the NRA’s greatest PR victory of the last few years: the greatly overworked, shamefully distorted Fast and Furious scandal.
As Fortune reporter Katherine Eban revealed in an outstanding investigation published last summer, much of what Republicans have claimed about the scandal—including the headline-grabbing assertion that the US government intentionally provided guns to Mexican drug cartels—is false. The real story is of an agency sabotaged by the same pro-gun mania which led to the Newtown tragedy.
The Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) opened up the Fast and Furious case to monitor American teenagers, who had been tapped by Mexican drug cartels to help arm the war in Mexico by becoming straw purchasers or front buyers. Our laws permit a teenager with no prior criminal record to pay cash and buy an unlimited number of military assault rifles. Their favorites included AR-15 variants like the Bushmaster .223 rifle used by Adam Lanza at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Were Lanza in Arizona, he could have walked into nearly any federally licensed firearms dealer, plunked down $10,000 in cash, and left with 20 AK-47s in his hands—as do so many straw purchasers.
In a sane country, the inquiry into Brian Terry’s death would have examined all the tools that the ATF agents lacked in trying to build a case against the straw purchasers in Fast and Furious. There is no firearms trafficking statute, which would have allowed the ATF to build a swifter case that targeted the straw purchasers and their recruiters as a group. There is no comprehensive database of firearms purchases, which would have given the agents a much-needed real-time look at their suspects’ activities. In fact, the laws are so lax that the buyers didn’t even need to resort to a favored avenue for shady purchases: our totally unregulated gun shows, which require no background checks at all. (A sane country also would not have left the ATF to languish without a permanent head for fully six years—an unacceptable situation that Mayor Michael Bloomberg has rightly called on the president to address with a recess appointment.)
The Republican-led House, acting in lockstep with the NRA, twisted the facts of the ill-fated gun trafficking investigation in Phoenix to complete almost every item on its political To Do list. It used the scandal to bludgeon and destabilize the ATF, the agency charged with enforcing the nation’s gun laws. It diverted attention from the ineffective gun laws that made the ATF’s job in Fast and Furious nearly impossible. And it emerged with a cherished talking point: that the gun laws on the books right now are more than adequate, and it’s only their enforcement that has flaws.
The effort by the NRA and its friends in Congress to stymie any discussion of our permissive guns laws during its Fast and Furious investigation was made plain by the lead sled dog, Chairman Darrell Issa (R-CA), who at multiple hearings openly silenced Democratic members from even asking questions about the strength of the laws or potential legislative solutions.
If the NRA and Republican congressmen really cared about Brian Terry or his tragic death, they would have probed the actual causes underlying it, instead of proliferating a lot of phony conspiracy theories so wild, they almost left Stephen Colbert at a loss for words.
Early on in the investigation, the few reality-based ideas came from Representative Elijah Cummings, the Oversight and Government Reform Committee’s ranking Democrat. Cummings held a hearing on the state of the gun laws and issued a report with recommendations including the enactment of a federal firearms trafficking statute. But the 36-month Republican-led investigation into Fast and Furious yielded not a single suggestion for strengthening the laws or empowering the ATF. Instead, it was a blueprint for reducing what passes as gun enforcement to rubble. As we’re tragically reminded over and over, that comes at a tragic price.