FARAGO: Unload the ATF

Gun-running debacle should bring troubled agency to an end

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By its own admission, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) allowed dozens of gun smugglers to supply Mexican criminal cartels with thousands of firearms. Drug thugs used one of these weapons to assassinate U.S. Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry.

The former ATF special agent in charge of the Phoenix Field Division testified to Congress that the White House and at least four other federal agencies had direct knowledge of “Operation Fast and Furious.” Despite - or because of - the Nixonian cover-up following Terry’s murder, the simmering scandal could topple the Obama administration. Regardless of thepresident’s fate, it’s the ATF that needs to go.

The “Gunwalker” scandal brings the ATF’s ideological corruption into sharp focus. The agency’s motive for creating a program that violated Mexican sovereignty and put innocent lives at risk: inflating the number of American firearms recovered at Mexican crime scenes. The more blood-soaked American guns in Mexico the ATF could identify for its congressional paymasters, the more compelling its case for increased federal funding and new agency-enforced gun-control regulations. In short, Operation Fast and Furious was an anti-gun-running gun-running program.

Looking deeper into the ATF-shaped moral abyss, it’s easy to see why the agency became involved with Mexican gun smuggling in the first place. Ironically enough, international arms smuggling falls under the purview of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, whose agent was killed by an ATF-enabled firearm. Not to put too fine a point on it, the federal agency that costs U.S. taxpayers $1.25 billion per year - not including $40 million in “emergency” funding allocated to the ATF’s ill-conceived, ill-fated “southwest border enhancement” activities - doesn’t have anything to do.

With some extremely rare exceptions, the American gun dealers and alcohol, tobacco and explosives companies that the ATF is paid to police are law-abiding corporate citizens. For example, a hugely expensive anti-gun-smuggling sweep of thousands of Southwestern gun dealers turned up - nothing. In fact, some of the gun dealers at the Mexican border called the ATF to alert the agency about shady firearms buyers who looked as if they were heading south. As part of Operation Fast and Furious, the ATF told the dealers to “let the sales go through.”

Be that as it is, nothing the ATF does to justify its bloated bureaucracy and law-unto-themselves agents couldn’t be done by any one of a worryingly large number of local, county, state, tribal and federal agencies - strike that - is already done by other law enforcement agencies. The ATF is always barging in on busts and stepping on someone’s toes. In 2009, an inspector general’s audit said the conflict between the ATF and the FBI “led to confusion at crime sites, arguments in front of state and local investigators, tit-for-tat recrimination, and even a threat from the FBI to arrest an ATF agent.”

Yet the ATF still relies on “joint operations” and “stings” (a generous description of its latest extralegal escapade) to generate positive publicity and plump up its feathers. To that end, the agency has rebranded ATF to stand for “At the Frontline of Violent Crime.” Truth be told, the operation - formerly a division of the Internal Revenue Service - ain’t got game.

But it does have an attitude: anti-gun. Setting aside the horrors of Ruby Ridge, Idaho, and Waco, Texas, the ATF has a long, ignoble history of running roughshod over Americans’ Second Amendment rights. In 1982, a Senate subcommittee report called the ATF’s enforcement tactics “constitutionally, legally and practically reprehensible.” In the interim, nothing has changed.

Displaying its ongoing antipathy to the right to keep and bear arms, the ATF has just pushed through an executive order creating an unconstitutional long-gun registry. The agency says the new regulations will help it catch smugglers trying to secrete American weapons into Mexico - the same crime it enabled and encouraged under Operation Fast and Furious.

In light of the ATF’s history, culture and practices, it should come as no surprise that the National Rifle Association (NRA) has worked diligently to cap the ATF’s budget. Clearly, that’s not good enough. In the interests of justice and fiscal responsibility, the ATF must be disbanded. Its budget should be zeroed out, its buildings sold, its employees transferred or fired and its work parceled out to appropriate authorities.

Eliminate an entire federal agency? Yes. The ATF is a prime example that big government is, inherently, bad government. It’s expensive, unnecessary and, as our forefathers knew well enough, dangerous. There is nothing to stop the American people from cutting their government down to size.

Despite what the ATF and its Fast and Furious co-conspirators believe, we live in a country based on democracy and the rule of law. If we have the will, we have the way. Call the NRA and your elected representatives. It’s time to drop the dime on the ATF.

Robert Farago is managing editor of thetruthaboutguns.com.

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