The killing of a U.S. Border Patrol agent in December has confounded investigators and emphasized a double standard in U.S. gun law.
Authorities believe Agent Brian Terry might have been killed during a shootout along the Arizona-Mexico border by bandits wielding AK-47s linked to a suspected gun trafficker, who bought his cache legally from U.S. dealers.
Whistleblowers at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) made the allegations last month, sparking a congressional investigation of the incident and renewed scrutiny of the government programs meant to curtail the sale of hundreds of weapons to so-called straw purchasers.
The buyers meet the legal requirements to purchase as many assault weapons as they want, but they're often not acting for themselves, critics say. Instead, they illegally distribute the guns across the southwest border region or traffic them into Mexico.
"There are serious concerns that the ATF may have become careless, if not negligent, in implementing the [Project] Gunrunner strategy," U.S. Sen. Charles Grassley wrote in a letter to acting ATF Director Kenneth Melson of the agency's initiative to curtail illegal firearm trafficking.
If the weapons used to kill Agent Brian Terry had been obtained from a straw purchaser of whom the ATF had been aware, Grassley said, "that raises a host of serious questions that the ATF needs to address immediately."
The Justice Department said in a letter Friday to the Judiciary Committee that claims made about the guns were false and that the agency would brief Grassley and other senators on its investigation. An ATF spokesman declined to comment.
But sources familiar with the case say the implication that ATF sanctioned the sale of weapons to suspected straw purchasers, or should have better tracked them, belies a larger problem: flawed gun laws and enforcement mechanisms that permit the mass purchase of assault weapons and allows their trafficking to commence largely unchecked.
Under federal law, individuals who pass a background check and other requirements can purchase an unlimited number of assault weapons, without any reporting to or tracking by ATF.
Purchases of two or more handguns in a five day period, however, are tracked by ATF, which critics have called a double standard.
Individual purchasers are also allowed to re-sell or trade their weapons, but they are not allowed to buy weapons with the intent of obtaining them for someone else.
Moreover, gun shop owners and federal agents say, it's difficult to identify and stop suspected straw purchasers at the time of purchase. If a person meets the requirements, it's up to a dealer to decide whether or not to sell the guns.
New Rule Still Under Review
"There's no requirement that gun dealers report a pattern of gun purchases, whether several assault-type weapons in a purchase by one person, or if it's a cash transaction, or a bunch of young Hispanic males," said Dick DeGuerin, a Houston attorney representing Carter's Country, a company under investigation for alleged sales to suspected straw purchasers.
"Many dealers, like Carter's Country, agree to voluntarily do that, however, because they're requested to by ATF agents," he said. "But there's no question that every one of the transactions was lawful. And once the gun leaves the store, it's not the gun store's business anymore. It's the ATF. And they often don't fully utilize the information the dealers provide."
ATF officials say the agency regularly collects information on suspicious buyers from dealers and follows-up on leads, but acknowledged they are ill-equipped with staff to adequately investigate every suspicion of a straw purchaser.
There were roughly 3,600 ATF employees in the firearms division in the 2010 fiscal year that ended September, a number that has held relatively steady since the 1970s.
But officials also say the agency is doing its best with limited resources.
In late January, ATF announced the arrests of 20 suspected straw purchasers in the Phoenix area, which, officials said, disrupted a major gun trafficking operation. "We strongly believe we took down the entire organization from top to bottom that operated out of the Phoenix area," William Newell, ATF special agent in charge, said.
Meanwhile, acting ATF director Melson requested that the Obama administration approve an emergency, one-year rule requiring gun dealers to report multiple sales of long guns with detachable magazines -- such as AK-47s and other assault rifles -- as is required for handguns.
The administration rejected the request last month, facing fierce opposition from the gun lobby and a desire to curb excessive government regulation.
The rule is still under review by the Office of Management and Budget and may ultimately be implemented, but not before a period of public comment and debate.