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Two Wrongs Don't Make a Right for Issa

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Why is GOP Lawmaker's Sudden Outrage Over Illegal Gun Trafficking Confined to a Discontinued ATF Operation?

Commenting on a story that has been the focus of national headlines, Congressman Darrell Issa (R-CA) took to the lectern in front of an audience of thousands and spoke with great outrage about how "lawless individuals are using weapons ill-gotten."

Most Americans would automatically assume that Congressman Issa was referring to the event that has captured the attention of an entire nation: the slaying of unarmed 17 year-old Trayvon Martin on February 26th in Sanford, Florida by concealed handgun permit holder George Zimmerman (a man with a violent history who operated under the expansive legal authority of an NRA Kill at Will law). But no. The chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform was instead referring to the "Fast and Furious" operation conducted by the Phoenix Field Office of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), which allowed guns to "walk" into Mexico. The setting was Friday's "Celebration of American Values Leadership Forum" at the 2012 annual convention of the National Rifle Association (NRA). [All 13 featured speakers at the event were Republican men.]

Why would a man in charge of an ostensibly independent, ongoing investigation into the Obama administration appear before a special interest group that is openly hostile to our president (to the point of threatening him with violence) and engage in a scathing attack on him, his attorney general, and the Department of Justice? And why would he call for the ouster of Eric Holder prior to completing his investigation into Fast and Furious?

First, a bit of background into "gun-walking." The ATF tactic of allowing illegal firearms to cross the U.S.-Mexico border in order to build cases against higher-ranking cartel officials actually dates back to a Bush Administration operation called "Wide Receiver." From early 2006 to late 2007, the ATF allowed 450 firearms to "walk" from a Tucson, Arizona gun store across the border to suspected drug cartel members. A similar operation, known as "Fast and Furious," was later conducted out of ATF's Phoenix field office between November 2009 and January 2011. Approximately 2,200 guns were allowed to "walk" in Fast and Furious and, as with "Wide Receiver," the majority of these firearms were lost in the process. "Fast and Furious" was terminated abruptly after firearms associated with the operation were recovered at the scene of the shooting death of U.S. Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry. Soon thereafter, ATF whistleblowers (rightly) revealed the operation publicly to the national media.

To put the number of weapons involved in Wide Receiver and Fast and Furious into context, Assistant Attorney General Lanny Breuer recently pointed out to the Senate Judiciary subcommittee that, "94,000 weapons have been recovered [from crime scenes] in the last five years in Mexico. Those are just the ones recovered...not the ones that are in Mexico, and of the 94,000 weapons that have been recovered in Mexico, 64,000 of those [were] traced to the United States."

The fact that Fast and Furious involved a relatively small number of firearms and was terminated 15 months ago was not really of concern to Issa on Friday, however. The operation still served as a politically expedient backdrop to go after his real target: existing or proposed gun laws to curb illegal firearms trafficking. "Democrats in Washington immediately seized on [Fast and Furious] to talk about the need for additional gun control laws," Issa told the NRA faithful. "Most importantly, our constitutional liberties must be defended first and foremost and Fast and Furious can be seen as nothing else but in fact a needless attack on our right to keep and bear arms." Issa even found time to attack Obamacare and endorse the controversial Citizens United decision by a split Supreme Court.

U.S. Rep. Darrell Issa and Chris Cox of the NRANRA leader Chris Cox absolutely loved it, and presented Issa (a convicted gun criminal) with a "Defender of Freedom" award for his "serious investigation into the Fast and Furious scandal" and for being "a tremendous ally to the [NRA's] legislative efforts on Capitol Hill."

Let me perfectly clear on this important point: Both Operation Wide Receiver and Operation Fast and Furious were ill-advised, misguided and dead wrong. They violated the most central ATF tenet, which is that you never, ever let a gun knowingly walk into the hands of a criminal. The loved ones of Brian Terry--and Mexicans who were harmed by weapons that were walked as part of operations Wide Receiver and Fast and Furious--have every right to be outraged and demand full accountability from Department of Justice officials who authorized the gun-walking strategy. The fact that ATF is under new leadership is a good start.

But the charade being perpetrated by Congressional GOP leaders--that illegal gun trafficking is a problem that suddenly began with the advent of Fast and Furious and abruptly ended when the operation concluded in January 2011--is equally offensive to American and Mexican victims and survivors of gun violence. And it's not just the tens of thousands of guns being illegally trafficked from the U.S. into Mexico year after year. In 2009, of the 145,321 guns that were traced to crime scenes in the United States, 43,254--or 30%--were purchased in one state and recovered in another. Put simply, we are dealing with an illegal gun trafficking epidemic that is both international and intranational in nature. And this epidemic is entirely because of NRA-drafted laws that allow dangerous individuals to purchase guns and carry them in public with little or no accountability--the same exact policies that Darrell Issa has been supporting for years in the United States Congress.

"Many will say in the weeks to come that in fact this is now a political season ... Many will say this is a witch hunt," Congressman Issa warned NRA members. If there were any remaining doubts about that, the Congressman and allies like Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley dispelled them completely on Friday.