WASHINGTON -- Thursday's vote on holding the attorney general of the United States in contempt of Congress is being watched closely by the National Rifle Association, which says it will give bad marks to those lawmakers who don't condemn Eric Holder over his handling of Operation Fast and Furious and its aftermath.
But why is the NRA even involved? What does any of this have to do with gun rights?
Strange as it may sound, Republicans in Congress are arguing that the Justice Department deliberately allowed the anti-gun trafficking operation to unfold in a way that would create a crisis, outraging the public and giving Democrats the cover to implement stricter gun controls.
"Oh my God. It has nothing to do with the Second Amendment," Rep. David Scott (D-Ga.) marveled to HuffPost. "This has nothing to do with the Second Amendment, for crying out loud."
Leading Republicans disagree. In April, Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), the chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee who has been spearheading the congressional investigation of Fast and Furious, presented the case for conspiracy at an NRA conference.
"Could it be that what they really were thinking of was, in fact, to use this 'walking' of guns in order to promote an assault weapons ban? Many think so. And they haven't come up with an explanation that would cause any of us not to agree," Issa said.
(A Fortune magazine investigation has shown that many assertions about the operation and related accusations leveled at the Justice Department are simply false and that "the public case alleging that [Fast and Furious] walked guns is replete with distortions, errors, partial truths, and even some outright lies." The department did not intentionally allow illegal guns to pass into the hands of criminals. Rather, it tracked people illegally buying and trafficking weapons, but was unable to arrest them because of the country's loose gun laws -- laws advocated by the NRA. )
Republicans making the most brazen conspiracy charges have often crafted their broadside in hypothetical terms, using the tried and true we're-not-saying-but-we're-just-saying formulation.
In July 2011, Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), who has been the lead Senate investigator of Fast and Furious, told CNSNews.com that he suspected ulterior motives. "My suspicion is they don't like the Second Amendment the way it is, and they want to do everything they can to hurt guns and restrict guns, and so they could have been building a case for that. But I can't prove that," he said.
"If the American people learn that the motivations for all of this was to make a case to deprive them of their Second Amendment rights or to make a case to further the [Justice] Department's ability to further regulate gun rights within the United States, that would make them very angry," said Rep. Trent Franks (R-Ariz.).
Some Republicans, however, haven't bothered to cloak their charges in uncertainty. "Frankly, I believe that it was set up to go wrong in order to deal with Second Amendment liberties of law-abiding citizens and pushing it to a perception that it was the problem of the Second Amendment as opposed to law enforcement," Rep. Tim Walberg (R-Ill.) said at a committee hearing.
GOP leaders know that the party's base is ripe for conspiracy theories, whether it's about the birthplace of the president or his desire to create "death panels" to kill grandma. In April of this year, speaking to an NRA audience, Issa made it clear just how much the party is relying on those supporters to connect the dots. "Today, I don't come here to explain how in fact this came to be. I will rely on you to understand that if there is no explanation that makes good sense, there can only be an explanation that makes the sense of ulterior motives of unthinkable proportions," he said.
But just in case a few in the audience were still skeptical, moments later Issa told the crowd that Fast and Furious "can be seen as nothing else but" the conspiracy he suggested earlier.
"Our constitutional liberties must be defended first and foremost," he said. "And Fast and Furious can be seen as nothing else but, in fact, a needless attack on our right to keep and bear arms, because as you promote lawlessness with weapons knowingly, you can reach no conclusion but that the American people will be asked again to give up their right to keep and bear arms, because lawless individuals are using weapons ill-gotten."