ATF grilled over questionable stings

Republicans and Democrats on Thursday grilled a top official at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) over a series of controversial sting operations the agency has conducted in the wake of the "Fast and Furious" gun tracking operation.

Rep. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.), who presided over the Judiciary subcommittee hearing, accused the agency of displaying an “amazing lack of judgment” in recent sting operations that have taken place since ATF Director Todd Jones took over as acting director in August 2011. 

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“This doesn't appear to be one operation gone, but a systemic problem plaguing the ATF,” Sensenbrenner said at the hearing. “After operation 'Fast and Furious,' we were told numerous times that changes were coming to the ATF under the new leadership. I certainly hope this operation and others like it are not indicative of those changes, because they aren't changes for the better at all.”

The lawmakers zeroed in on two failed sting operations, where ATF agents set up phony storefronts and tried to convince criminals to sell them drugs and guns at a premium.

Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.) said these operations “were both embarrassing and sometimes dangerous to the public.”

In Milwaukee, the plan backfired when the store, Fearless Distributing, was broken into in October, and thieves made off with nearly $40,000 in merchandise, including a shotgun. 

The ATF is also dealing with an angry store owner, who says the agents trashed the building he rented to them. He wants $15,000 for the damages. 

Meanwhile, in Portland, Ore., critics say the ATF agents preyed on a mentally disabled teenager and his friend, convincing them to sell the store marijuana and eventually arresting them, rather than going after more dangerous criminals.

Some lawmakers questioned whether this store did more harm than good.

“One has to wonder if these guns would have even been out on street, if it weren't for the enticing deal being offered by ATF,” Sensenbrenner said.

The Portland store, Squids, was set up within a school zone, which critics say put students in danger.

ATF Deputy Director Thomas Brandon, who testified before the subcommittee in the absence of Jones, acknowledged that was a problem.

“They changed the hours and made it in the evening, so the children weren't in school, but bottom line it shouldn't have happened,” he said.

The ATF agents at Squids also convinced a mentally disabled teenager to get a tattoo of a Squid smoking marijuana — for which the government paid $150 — so he could promote the store.

Critics have accused the agency of going after the “low hanging fruit” by targeting this individual. 

“ATF targets criminal conduct, not people with low IQs,” Brandon said.