Operation Fast and Furious is living up to its moniker. Trapped for many months below the radar screen, the story recently found a safe perch above the noise as it grew into a full blown scandal. Characterized as a gunrunning operation run amuck, Fast and Furious has led to the removal of the acting director of the federal bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives; repeated congressional hearings; President Obama's first assertion of executive privilege to protect documents subpoenaed by congressional investigators; and most recently to the Republican-led House voting to find the attorney general in contempt of congress--a first for a sitting cabinet member.
Fast and Furious was run out of ATF's Phoenix office. The objective was to follow the firearms into the hands of the Sinaloa cartel and unravel their gunrunning network.
According to a July 11, 2011 Los Angeles Times editorial, "As part of Fast and Furious, ATF agents allowed straw purchases, in which a person buys guns on behalf of someone else who cannot legally buy them. The idea was to allow the purchases to go through in order to trace where the guns ended up, but agents appear to have lost track of a significant number of the weapons. Nearly 200 of the guns were used in crimes in Mexico, officials have determined, and two weapons were found in December at the scene of a U.S. Border Patrol agent's killing."
This is one of many examples illustrating the typical way the story has been reported, leaving one with the impression that straw purchases and gun trafficking were somehow unique to Fast and Furious.
In Arizona, there is no limit on the number of guns that can be bought or resold, as long as the purchaser is 18 or older and has no criminal record. No permits or waiting periods are required. Phoenix is home to over 850 federally licensed firearms dealers.
Arizona's permissive gun laws allowed gun trafficking long before Fast and Furious, and this activity will continue unabated into the foreseeable future. What Operation Fast and Furious added to the equation was the certainty -- rather than the high probability -- that weapons obtained by straw purchases would be resold to criminals.
It was the tragic death of Customs and Border Protection Agent Brian Terry that ended Fast and Furious and sparked the congressional investigation. In the highly partisan climate inside the Beltway, each side accuses the other of political theatre as the stakes continue to rise.
But there are sobering realities that could easily be lost in the hyperbole of scandal.
Ending Fast and Furious would do little to improve the safety of Mexicans, Arizonians, and border patrol agents. When state laws sanction gun trafficking and there are no federal laws prohibiting it, who can feign shock when weapons are used in criminal activity?
An estimated 50,000 Mexicans have been killed since 2006. To be sure, Mexican President Felipe Calderon's frontal assault on the cartels sparked the violence precipitating in the deaths. But there can be no doubt that we are morally culpable, as narcotraffickers use any means necessary to meet America's insatiable appetite for illegal drugs.
The proper context for Fast and Furious is the war on drugs. Drug trafficking is accurately defined as a problem of supply and demand.
During a trip to Mexico on March 25, 2009, Secretary of State Hilary Clinton said, "We know very well that the drug traffickers are motivated by the demand for illegal drugs in the United States and that they are armed by the transport of weapons from the United States."
On May 13, 2010, U.S. drug czar Gil Kerlikowske told the AP that the drug war hasn't worked. "In the grand scheme of things, it has not been successful."
Although our government seems content to muddle around in the fog of the drug war, the apparent truth in these statements shines through. Fast and Furious is another painful example of the giant chasm between the correct statement of the problem and the strategies employed to solve the problem.
When will our government begin to employ strategies that have a real and lasting impact on the supply or demand for illegal drugs?
Locking people up, whether they are illegal firearms traffickers, drug users, low-level drug traffickers, or kingpins, will have no sustainable impact on the drug war.
Meanwhile, the long arm of the pro-gun lobby assures that the river of firearms continues to flow into Mexico at the rate of 2,000 each day. And a story that could have sparked a sober conversation in America about our drug policy has been reframed to be a scandal about allowing guns to "walk."
At its heart, the war on drugs is a war on economically challenged communities of color. All races use illegal drugs at similar rates, but according to Jack Cole, retired State Police Lieutenant and founding member of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, in 2008 black men were arrested seven times the rate black South African men were arrested at the height of Apartheid. Children forced to make their way in the world alone because parents are locked up for nonviolent drug-related crimes are among the most regrettable victims of our nation's drug policy.
Among the privileged, problematic drug use is treated as a health issue. The time has come to extend a public health approach to drug abuse and addiction to all our residents. Treatment on demand, syringe exchange, decriminalization, and legal regulation are harm reduction strategies that work and must be on the table.
Whatever happens in the showdown between the President and congress, drug-related crimes and tragedies will continue until lawmakers settle on proven solutions that have a lasting impact on the supply and the demand for drugs. Nothing else will work.
Joy Strickland is founder and CEO of Mothers Against Teen Violence in Dallas, Texas, and author of Joy in the Morning--A Mother's Journey from Tragedy to Triumph. The piece is written in association with The OpEd Project Public Voices Fellowship at Texas Woman's University.