The US Justice Department announced on Aug. 30 that Kenneth Melson, the acting head of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF), had been reassigned to another position in the department and that Dennis Burke, the US attorney for Arizona, was resigning from his post. The department didn’t explain the reason for the changes, but they were clearly fallout from Operation Fast and Furious, a bungled ATF program that allowed some 2,000 weapons to go from the US to Mexico, where they were probably used in drug cartel violence.
The ATF is the agency in charge of preventing the spread of illegal weapons in and from the US; gun smuggling from states on the Mexico-US border is considered the source of the majority of contraband firearms in Mexico. Some 40,000 Mexicans have died in drug-related killings since the beginning of 2007.
So far at least eight US officials have been removed or reassigned because of their association with Fast and Furious, but the Congress members who have led the probe into the operation–Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA) and Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-IA)—indicated that they weren’t satisfied. The two Republicans plan to continue their investigation into what has become a major embarrassment for Attorney General Eric Holder and the administration of US president Barack Obama, a Democrat. (La Jornada, Mexico, Aug. 31)
Despite their apparent concern now about controlling the flow of illegal firearms, Rep. Issa and Sen. Grassley have opposed gun control in the past. Grassley has an “A” rating from the National Rife Association (NRA), which lobbies against gun control laws and has pushed to limit the ATF’s powers. Issa too has the group’s “A” rating. (On the Issues website, accessed Sept. 4)
A report released by a gun control advocacy group a few days after the ATF shake-up pointed to what may be an important source for the US weapons that end up with Mexican drug traffickers. Using ATF data, the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence found that 16,485 guns have disappeared from the inventories of some 4,500 US gun manufacturers during the past two years. There are no records of their having been sold. “Firearms that disappear from gun manufacturers’ plants without records of sale are frequently trafficked by gun traffickers and prized by criminals,” the report says. “Guns taken from gun manufacturing plants may also be removed before they have been stamped with serial numbers, making them virtually untraceable.”
In 2004 Congress passed an amendment sponsored by Rep. Todd Tiahrt (R-KS, 1995-2011) that keeps the ATF from requiring gun manufacturers to track their inventory. (The Hill, Washington, DC, Sept. 3) Issa and Grassley are strong defenders of the amendment. (NRA Institute for Legislative Action website, accessed Sept. 5)
From Weekly News Update on the Americas, Sept. 4.
See our last post on Mexico’s narco wars.