The Hill: Gun Crackdowns Ignore Waco & Other ATF Atrocities

The Hill, March 7, 2018

President Trump declared last week that the law enforcement should “take the guns first, go through due process second.” But the history of federal firearms enforcement shows that due process is often a mirage when federal bureaucrats drop their hammer. Before enacting sweeping new gun prohibitions, we should remember the collateral damage and constitutional absurdities from previous federal crackdowns.

Gun control advocates have called for prohibiting possession of AR-15 rifles — a ban that could create five million new felons overnight, since most owners would not meekly surrender their firearms at the nearest federal office. Others advocate outlawing all semi-automatic firearms — an edict first floated by the Clinton administration that would create tens of millions of new offenders.

But before vesting vast new power in federal enforcers, the record of the Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) agency must be considered. A 1982 Senate Subcommittee on the Constitution report on ATF concluded, “Enforcement tactics made possible by current firearms laws are constitutionally, legally, and practically reprehensible.” Outrageous abuses have continued to the present day. An analysis conducted for the University of Chicago found that ATF heavily targeted racial minorities in its entrapment operations. And across the nation, ATF has been caught using mentally handicapped individuals in sting operations.Sweeping new firearms prohibitions would enable the feds to selectively target unpopular offenders. The biggest debacle resulting from prior such targeting occurred 25 years ago last week outside of Waco, Texas. The federal Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) agency saw the Branch Davidians — a fringe Protestant group that quickly became maligned as a cult — as the perfect patsies for a high-profile raid that would make G-men look like heroes.

Waco illustrates how, if the feds decide to vilify someone, their prior efforts to comply with the law will vanish from the record. In July 1992, ATF agent Davy Aguilera visited the Branch Davidians’ gun dealer, Henry McMahon, who suggested the Davidians were illegally converting semiautomatic firearms to full automatic firing capacity, a federal felony. When Davidian leader David Koresh was told that allegation, he invited Aguilera to visit the Davidians’ residence and carry out an on-the-spot inspection. Aguilera refused the invitation and his subsequent affidavit application to search the Davidians’ residence “contained an incredible number of false statements,” according to a 1996 congressional report.

Federal agencies will likely design crackdowns on firearms violators to maximize publicity and impress Congress. On February 28, 1993, more than 70 ATF agents launched a frontal attack (including 3 military helicopters) on the Davidians’ sprawling wooden residence. Prior to the assault, the ATF alerted several television stations to assure coverage of a raid expected to seize a big cache of weapons. CBS’s 60 Minutes disclosed that ATF agents said “the initial attack on that cult in Waco was a publicity stunt — the main goal of which was to improve ATF’s tarnished image.” A 1996 congressional investigation noted that ATF deliberately chose a “dynamic entry approach. The bias toward the use of force may in large part be explained by a culture within ATF,” including “promotional criteria.”

Gun owners who are targeted will find it almost impossible to learn about federal conniving. ATF claimed a surprise attack was necessary because Koresh almost never came out of his home. Six years later, thanks to FOIA hounding by lawyer David Hardy, the ATF finally disclosed a memo revealing that, nine days before the raid, two undercover ATF agents (recognized as such by Koresh) knocked on the door of the Davidian residence and invited Koresh to go shooting. Koresh, two other Davidians, and the two agents had a fine time shooting AR-15s and Sig-Sauer semiautomatic pistols. But easily arresting Koresh that day would have preempted the biggest raid in ATF history.

Federal guilt will vanish in the bureaucratic catacombs. After the raid turned into a debacle, leaving four ATF agents and six Davidians dead, the ATF claimed Davidians “ambushed” their agents, a story promoted by the vast majority of the media. But after ATF agents told superiors that the ATF shot first, the ATF ceased its shooting review to avoid creating documents that could subvert any court case against the Davidians. The ATF “ambush” narrative spurred the FBI to become far more punitive against the Davidians in the subsequent 51-day siege.

Gun control advocates may shrug off ATF misconduct at Waco as a once-in-a-bureaucratic-lifetime fluke. Tell that to Mexicans – 150 of whom died because of the ATF’s Fast and Furious gun-running scheme that illegally sent thousands of firearms into Mexico during Obama’s presidency.

Gun owners fear a revival of 1990s federal enforcement efforts that endlessly vilified them. In a 1994 Supreme Court case, the Clinton administration argued that gun owners are the legal equivalent of drug dealers who should be presumed guilty. The Justice Department solemnly told the Court: “One would hardly be surprised to learn that owning a gun is not an innocent act.”

The case of Harold Staples vs. U.S. involved an AR-15 that the ATF had tampered with after seizing to convert it into an illegal automatic weapon.  Justice Clarence Thomas, writing for the 7-2 court majority rebuke of the Clinton administration, declared, “The government’s position, is precisely that ‘guns in general’ are dangerous items. (For) the Government … the proposition that a defendant’s knowledge that the item he possessed ‘was a gun’ is sufficient for a conviction.” If the White House is occupied by someone who derides the Second Amendment, scores of millions of gun owners could be victimized by similar or worse toxic legal nonsense.

“Show us the gun and we’ll find a crime” crackdowns work out great for bureaucrats but ravage citizens and the Constitution. There are already sufficient laws on the books to disarm people who pose stark public threats, such as alleged Florida school shooter Nikolas Cruz.  Sweeping gun bans multiply the number of criminals while doing little or nothing to reduce violence.

James Bovard is a USA Today columnist and the author of 10 books, including “Lost Rights: The Destruction of American Liberty” (St. Martin’s Press, 1994).


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One Response to The Hill: Gun Crackdowns Ignore Waco & Other ATF Atrocities

  1. d March 8, 2018 at 10:47 am #

    Make everyone a ‘criminal’ and the rest is easy….NOT