Operation Fast & Furious, War on Drugs and Gun Control

By Sean Rosenthal

Last year, the public became aware of a program by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) known as Operation Fast and Furious (F&F). Most controversially, as a part of the program, the ATF knowingly allowed suspected arms traffickers to transport thousands of guns to Mexican drug gangs. In December 2010, the program backfired when two of the guns involved with the program were found at the murder scene of U.S. border patrol agent Brian Terry.

Several months later, after the disclosure of this program which has led to the deaths of hundreds of innocent people, many gun rights advocates have asserted that the program was secretly designed to increase violence in Mexico thereby creating a justification for more gun control. Most notably, the National Rifle Association (NRA) published an article contending Operation F&F showed that President Obama has a long-term, subtle plan to substantially enhance gun control in a possible second term.

Yet, evidence fails to link conclusively F&F with a premeditated attempt at gun control policy by the Obama administration. Though, as more information becomes available the operation continually looks worse, and this rather Machiavellian possibility seems more likely.

Assistant Attorney General Lanny Breuer, in his testimony before Congress after the disclosure of F&F,  blamed the Second Amendment for F&F. As a cabinet member representing the Obama Administration, Attorney General Eric Holder—who desired in 1995 to “brainwash” people to support gun control and contended that terrorists crashing planes into buildings on 9/11 showed the need for more gun control—also treated F&F as evidence of the need to impose tougher gun regulations. In fact, without Congressional input, the Obama administration strengthened gun control regulations in four states bordering Mexico, and a court subsequently approved the policy. Officials used the consequences of F&F to justify gun control policy even though the secret program had already been disclosed to the public.

This program was never supposed to be public knowledge. In fact, when asked about the program in early 2011, the ATF, on January 25, falsely denied sending guns to Mexico and on February 4th Assistant Attorney General, Ronald Weich, sent Congress a letter falsely denying claims that the government helped arm drug gangs.

After misinforming people regarding the details of the program, the Department of Justice (DOJ) repeatedly denied responsibility for F&F, portraying it as merely a local matter. Despite these repeated assertions, Congressional investigations unearthed information showing that the ATF Director Kenneth Melson was briefed weekly on the operation and that the heads of virtually every law enforcement component of the DOJ, such as the FBI and the Drug Enforcement Agency, may have known of the program.

It became apparent with the discovery of more information that both the Assistant Attorney General and the Attorney General, who both testified that F&F showed the need for more gun control, had prior knowledge of the operations. In the case of the Assistant Attorney General, he eventually admitted to having knowledge of F&F, though he claims that a failure on his part to make obvious connections stopped him from understanding the full scope of the program. In a much more damaging revelation, the Attorney General who claimed only to have heard of the operation a few weeks before May 3, 2011 was briefed of the program on July 5, 2010—nearly a year earlier—via documents addressed directly to him.

When remarking on these discoveries, Representative Darrell Issa correctly observed that even though only around 10% of the information on F&F has become available to Congress, “we find damning evidence that high-ranking people in Justice knew all along and not only didn’t stop this program, but believed in it.”

If the plan to keep this program a secret had worked, the case for using it to promote gun control—as advocated by members of the ATF while the program remained a secret—would be much stronger. Whether President Obama personally knew about the program or not, the increased violence resulting from the program bolstered his repeated assertions that guns from the United States threaten stability in Mexico and that, therefore, the federal government has a responsibility to do something about it.

In early April, Mexican President Calderon pleaded for President Obama and Congress to tighten gun control, particularly by reinstating the ban on assault weapons that expired in 2004. Given that Obama referred to the expiration of the ban at the time as a “scandal,” the President clearly sympathizes with Calderon’s request. If F&F had remained a secret, President Obama would have a much stronger case in calling for legislation to ban assault weapons on account of the violent drug war in Mexico.

Yet, the drug war itself represents a failed government policy often used to justify gun control. Although President Calderon blames the violence in Mexico largely on American guns, violence has spiked since 2006 in places where the Mexican army and federal police forces have intervened, drastically increasing the local overall murder rate in recent years. In contrast, the nation of Mexico as a whole has a lower murder rate than in previous decades, and the murder rate has continued to decline in line with long-term trends in the regions of Mexico devoid of any drug war. Rather than resulting from the end of the assault-weapons ban, the instability in Mexico is caused predominantly by the drug war, leading even Mexico’s ex-President and former drug war proponent Vicente Fox to join many other Latin American leaders in calling for its end.

With this realization, gun rights advocates who support the war on drugs should reconsider their view on the matter. The war on drugs and its associated violence is used by politicians as a justification for gun control and so poses a threat to Second Amendment rights. Without a drug war, much of the justification for restricting gun rights generally and assault weapons in particular would disappear.

Unfortunately, many gun rights advocates fail to see this connection. When the Obama administration decided to use the ATF last year to deny medical marijuana users the right to purchase guns and ammunition, proponents of second amendment rights, with some notable exceptions like Gun Owners of America, mostly accepted the decision without protest. Even the NRA remained silent on this decision by the Obama administration. By failing to speak up, these gun rights activists essentially accepted that the war on drugs represents a legitimate reason to impose gun restrictions. As the drug war in Mexico and in the United States continues, this ‘war on drugs exception’ to the Second Amendment represents a grave threat to the right to bear arms.

Although present information makes it unclear whether President Obama himself was aware of F&F and whether that program was originally created in part to justify further gun control, it remains a fact that the operation intensified the violence associated with the war on drugs in Mexico. Without a war on drugs, there would have been no F&F, and no one would have been able to use the failed program to justify further gun control.

While F&F represents an acute instance of governmental abuse which was eventually used to justify yet more abuse in the form of strengthened gun control, the continued war on drugs represents a far more serious and transparent danger to the right to bear arms. Second Amendment advocates who support it should seriously reconsider their views.

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