A Fast and Furious String of Government Failures

US Attorney General Eric Holder is in hot water again over Operation Fast and Furious, in which federal agents with the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives lost track of hundreds of guns they had encouraged firearms dealers to sell to suspected traffickers. It’s the big sequel to BATFE’s Operation Wide Receiver in which multiple guns were sold to suspected cartel buyers under BATFE surveillance in 2006 and 2007.

But the plot thickens, and goes in a direction that probably shouldn’t be surprising: Documents obtained by CBS News strongly suggest that BATFE agents had intended to use Fast and Furious guns to support their demands for tighter administrative regulations on gun sales, particularly requiring dealers to report the sale of multiple rifles to the same person within a certain time period (Documents: ATF used “Fast and Furious” to make the case for gun regulations, CBS News, December 7, 2011).

Where to even begin unraveling this one?

The Drug War is as good a place as any to start. It’s sometimes called a war on drugs, but that’s not really accurate. It is a war, with real casualties and war profiteering. But the government isn’t fighting against drugs. It’s fighting against people over control of drugs.

When commercial activity is criminalized, sellers have little legal recourse and competition becomes violent. When success in a business is based largely on the ability to withstand violence from other gangs and from government paramilitaries, those most capable of doing violence will succeed in that business. And this is true of the Drug War’s Mexican theater.

The Drug War is just one element in a state of broad economic exploitation. Political power shapes the economy to direct wealth generated by physical and mental labor to benefit those with access to political power — those who have the ability to give politicians something they want. Poverty in Mexico makes crime a more attractive option and leaves communities fewer resources to keep out the influence of violent gangs.

The dysfunction of the current political economy motivates many Mexican people to seek out better economic opportunity in the United States. That same political economy makes life harder for US natives than it would be in a free economy, and these economic issues fuel support for greater restriction on immigration and harsher enforcement against those who break the restrictions. This in turn makes the border more dangerous.

When people who want to move across an imaginary line without permission are made into an official criminal element they are forced to the margins of society where they have more contact with actual criminals, less ability to report crime without repercussion, and less leverage to increase their wages in otherwise legal work.

So to keep guns away from violent cartels, a problem government has inflamed, the BATFE wants to create arbitrary regulations that will apply to all firearms purchasers. To support this it cites activities that its own agents encourage and monitor.

Whether the secrecy surrounding Fast and Furious is just typical bureaucracy or something more sinister is hard to say. BATFE’s Mexico liaison claims he wasn’t told about the operation. It certainly wouldn’t be beyond imagining for government agents to let a few guns “walk” so they could later present the public with “guns sold in American stores found in the hands of drug cartels” to win themselves more power and funding, but bungling things. After all, if BATFE agents were involved in a conspiracy, one would expect it to be poorly managed.

When government regulations create problems, more government control is often presented as the solution. People wised up to this during alcohol prohibition, and that mistake was repealed. Yet any discussion of breaking up cartels by allowing open competition with the same protections as any civil society actor, or questioning whether government has any right to regulate what people put in their own bodies, is drowned out by the lobbying and propaganda machines of drug war profiteers. Violence can be reduced significantly by taking the profit out of it.

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