Among the more curious aspects of Eric Holder’s standoff with Congress over Fast and Furious, a gun-walking operation conducted between 2009 and 2011, is the air of conspiracy theorizing that hangs about it. Especially curious is that some of the most paranoid theorizing finds its source not in far-off Internet chat rooms, but in a well-appointed office building in northern Virginia—the headquarters of the National Rifle Association, the country’s biggest firearm lobbying organization.
In June, the NRA’s Executive Vice President, Wayne LaPierre, posted a letter on the organization’s website accusing Obama of crafting a “grand strategy to use Mexican drug cartel crime as an excuse to advance their gun control agenda, shut down law-abiding gun stores and rip the Second Amendment right out of our Bill of Rights.” LaPierre even implied that the death of Brian Terry, the Border Patrol agent killed along the border in Dec. 2010, was a byproduct of Obama’s hidden anti-gun agenda, telling The New York Times, “There is a belief among a lot of people—and I believe it too—…that the Justice Department facilitated a crime to further their gun control political agenda.”
However feverish the NRA’s stance, it’s clear that it has made an impact—not least, on the 17 Democrats who voted in favor of holding Holder in criminal contempt of Congress on June 28. Each of those Congressmen faces competitive reelections in conservative districts, and none of them could afford to tempt the ire of the NRA. After all, the executive director of the NRA had warned in a June 20 letter to the House of Representatives that it was planning on “consider[ing] this vote in our future candidate evaluations.” I asked Andrew Arulanandam, the NRA’s Director of Public Affairs, what motivated this decision. “Two very good reasons,” Arulanandam replied. “Truth and justice.”
Arulanandam’s avowed idealism aside, there’s little to commend the NRA’s theory that Operation Fast and Furious was part of a grand “gun control agenda” directed from the White House. A January 2012 House Oversight report debunked any allegations that the Obama administration attempted a cover-up of a “politically motivated operation.”
And in point of fact, the Obama administration has actually loosened gun laws, even garnering criticism from anti-gun groups for legislation allowing people to carry concealed weapons in national parks and checked luggage on Amtrak trains.
When I asked Arulanandam regarding Obama’s gun control record, he responded: “It’s a misconception that this administration is gun-neutral. The gun/parks legislation was attached to bills this administration desperately wanted.” But it’s hard to see why evidence of political compromise is sufficient for existence of a criminal conspiracy.
But here lies the greatest flaw in the entire accusation: The gun-walking (a tactic in which ATF permitted the sale of firearms to known criminals in hopes that they would lead them to powerful cartels) that is the most controversial aspect of Operation Fast and Furious started under the Bush administration, during an operation dubbed Wide Receiver. Arulanandam distinguished between these two operations by asserting that unlike Fast and Furious, the firearms under Wide Receiver were installed with transmitters (allowing them to be traced).
According to Adam Winkler, professor of constitutional law at UCLA and author of Gunfight: The Battle over the Right to Bear Arms in America, however, the closest existing claim is that some, but certainly not all, of the guns in Wide Receiver had tracking devices. In an emailed response, Winkler wrote, “Apparently, the tracking devices had to be manipulated to fit into or onto the weapons, which often resulted in breakage or the devices otherwise rendered ineffective. They also revealed that the sources of the weapons couldn't be trusted.”
Robert J. Spitzer, Distinguished Service Professor of Political Science at SUNY-Cortland and the author of four books on gun policy, also could not verify the existence of these transmitters. “I cannot find any confirmation that there were actual transmitters [in Wide Receiver],” Spitzer says. Instead, according to Spitzer, the closest evidence suggests that some firearms were tracked using serial numbers, erroneously labeled as electronic transmitters by right-wing websites.
Regardless, even if some firearms did contain electronic transmitters, a considerable number of weapons were still lost in Mexico during Wide Receiver. As Winkler added, “It only makes sense that law enforcement would stop using tracking devices that had proven ineffective.” Yet the NRA has made no suggestion that the Bush administration’s Justice Department set a grand anti-gun conspiracy into motion.
So why has the NRA argued so strongly, despite all evidence to the contrary, that the Obama administration is involved in a massive anti-gun conspiracy? The simplest answer would be that the NRA is desperate for an election-year issue, and they saw Holder’s contretemps with Congress as their best chance. “They need to pin the gun control conspiracy on something,” says Winkler. “The NRA thinks gun rights will be safer under Romney. So they use this claim that Obama’s refusal to push gun control is actually representative of a greater conspiracy to push gun control.”
In short, the NRA is accusing Obama, a remarkably gun-neutral president, of concealing a conspiracy using a gun walking strategy he didn’t even start. But what is most alarming is not that the NRA is engaging in such baseless conspiracy theories. It’s the fact that the organization’s flawed logic holds such powerful sway in Washington’s halls of power.