In December 2013, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel found that the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) was conducting ridiculous sting operations in several cities in which agents preyed on people with mental problems and low IQs. Among the findings of that investigation:

  • ATF agents befriended mentally disabled people to drum up business and later arrested them in at least four cities in addition to Milwaukee. In Wichita, Kan., ATF agents referred to a man with a low IQ as “slow-headed” before deciding to secretly use him as a key cog in their sting. And agents in Albuquerque, N.M., gave a brain-damaged drug addict with little knowledge of weapons a “tutorial” on machine guns, hoping he could find them one.
  • Agents in several cities opened undercover gun- and drug-buying operations in safe zones near churches and schools, allowed juveniles to come in and play video games and teens to smoke marijuana, and provided alcohol to underage youths. In Portland, attorneys for three teens who were charged said a female agent dressed provocatively, flirted with the boys and encouraged them to bring drugs and weapons to the store to sell.
  • As they did in Milwaukee, agents in other cities offered sky-high prices for guns, leading suspects to buy firearms at stores and turn around and sell them to undercover agents for a quick profit. In other stings, agents ran fake pawnshops and readily bought stolen items, such as electronics and bikes — no questions asked — spurring burglaries and theft. In Atlanta, agents bought guns that had been stolen just hours earlier, several ripped off from police cars.
  • Agents damaged buildings they rented for their operations, tearing out walls and rewiring electricity — then stuck landlords with the repair bills . . . 
  • Agents pressed suspects for specific firearms that could fetch tougher penalties in court. They allowed felons to walk out of the stores armed with guns. In Wichita, agents suggested a felon take a shotgun, saw it off and bring it back — and provided instructions on how to do it. The sawed-off gun allowed them to charge the man with a more serious crime.

Now the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reports similar problems at the ATF outpost there. Agents recently engaged in an operation they dubbed a “surge,” which they described as a campaign targeting the “worst of the worst” criminals in the area. But it doesn’t appear to have worked out that way:

Critics say that the surge was not really aimed at the worst — that it was not aimed at all. They regard [William] Buchanan as emblematic of a program that opened an inviting door of crime to just anybody — and snared mainly low-level, black drug users who were mentally incapacitated, drug addicted, homeless or just too desperate for money to run away from a deal too good to be true.
The operation, mainly in 2013, had two strategies. One was a “storefront” undercover operation offering cash for guns and drugs. The other enlisted armed helpers in fictitious plans to rob drug dealers’ “stash houses.” . . .
Defense attorneys here have complained loudly.
“They’re not targeting stash house robbers,” said [Diane] Dragan, the public defender. “They’re taking otherwise low-level criminals and offering them a high-level gig.”
Sean Vicente, a Dragan colleague who represented eight of the defendants, said many were homeless, mentally disabled or drug addicted — “people who are desperate for money.”
He said all responded with a “blank stare” when asked what they would have done with kilos of cocaine. None had past convictions for burglary or robbery. None cooperated with investigators, he noted, because they had no worthwhile information.
“That’s the sign of a low-level criminal,” interjected Dragan. “They have nothing to offer.”
With drug penalties dependent upon the quantity involved, lawyers complained, defendants were at the mercy of whatever amount of cocaine the ATF agents chose to claim was at the imaginary stash house.
Both public defenders said that prosecutors had been “reasonable” in disposing of the cases, agreeing to drop some charges that carried high mandatory minimum prison sentences.
John Lynch, a defense lawyer who had been on a federal task force in his days as a police officer, faulted the ATF for creating a conspiracy “where it otherwise would not exist.” He said that instead of “taking off guys walking around with a gun,” agents encouraged people to get guns.
In an Illinois case, St. Louis defense lawyer Ron Jenkins accused the ATF of “overwhelmingly” targeting minorities. Jenkins cited 17 cases since 2006 in the Northern District of Illinois, where he said there were 42 black defendants, eight Latino and seven white.
“I thought about these cases long and hard,” U.S. District Judge Audrey Fleissig said during the sentencing of Bobby Barnes for one St. Louis stash house case last year. “Frankly, I’m not a huge fan of this whole sting operation,” she added, saying she questioned the value of creating criminal opportunities that defendants “hadn’t thought of.”

As I’ve pointed out before here at The Watch, if you want more federal gun-control laws, keep in mind that this is the agency that would be enforcing them.

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