A congressional subcommittee has spent much of the last month investigating how a border security operation code named "Fast and Furious" allowed hundreds of guns to fall into the hands of criminals on both sides of the Mexican border.
The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives launched Fast and Furious in 2009 as part of a program to track guns sold in the United States to Mexican drug cartels. Agents were assigned to monitor some 2,000 guns that were sold to "straw purchasers" who knowingly bought weapons intended for use by others. The agency did not intercept the guns and later lost track of about 1,700 of them. Some of the guns eventually turned up at crime scenes in both countries, including two found at the site in Arizona where a federal Border Patrol agent was killed.
Buying dozens of guns at a time is legal in many states, including Arizona and Texas. But lying on a form at a gun shop about who will own the gun is a crime.
Congress is rightfully angry that the operation went awry, and it should demand an explanation. The ATF must be held accountable and must provide answers.
But it is worth noting that the ATF is charged with an impossible mission: enforcing weak laws in a nation awash in firearms, where even the most modest attempts to regulate or prevent mass straw purchases invite accusations of infringements on 2nd Amendment rights from the gun lobby.
Consider that in 2006 the ATF came under congressional scrutiny for attempting to crack down on straw purchases at Virginia gun shows. That operation had been launched in response to a rise in homicides in the state. Agents traced about 400 guns recovered from crime scenes back to Virginia gun shows, according to congressional testimony. ATF officers who attended the shows and conducted residency checks to verify that interested buyers provided accurate information were later accused of harassing legitimate gun owners.
If Congress wants to stop mass straw purchases and stem the flow of guns to Mexican drug cartels, it ought to begin by confirming a permanent ATF director. The agency has been rudderless for nearly five years, largely because the National Rifle Assn. has publicly opposed nominees, including President Obama's pick, Andrew Traver, who currently heads the ATF's Chicago field office.
Federal lawmakers might also consider limiting the number of guns an individual can buy. In California, for example, a person can only buy one handgun a month.
The ATF should be held accountable for Fast and Furious, but Congress and the White House are responsible for letting the agency drift, and for failing to adopt sensible laws to prevent mass straw purchases.