The Real Scandal of Fast and Furious

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House Republicans have resorted to partisan finger-pointing over 3 percent of the guns crossing the border -- and ignored the other 97 percent.

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Leave it to Stephen Colbert and his fearless writers to hone in on the extent of the cynicism and hypocrisy that marks the latest iteration of the "Fast and Furious" story. Before the sun had set on a day that Republicans on the House Oversight Committee had voted Attorney General Eric Holder "in contempt" for failing to produce enough documents about the failed gun-running sting, the gang at Comedy Central was telling it like it is. Here is the link to this instant classic:

Actually, despite silly headlines like this, it's not a complicated story at all. Operation Fast and Furious -- hey, let's give guns to bad guys, what could possibly go wrong? -- was a bad idea, poorly done, and thus not unlike hundreds or thousands of other poorly conceived and executed government plans of recent memory. (Like the Iraq War, for example). The Obama Administration, like the Bush Administration before it, deserves no small measure of blame for thinking that such a dangerous, unwieldy sting could be completed, successfully, without a great deal of unintended pain and sorrow.

To the right, the story has been an election-year blessing, a roiling melange of: (1) gun righteousness; (2) antipathy toward Holder, and; (3) fear and loathing of Mexico and Mexicans. When Colbert mocks the vast "conspiracy" the right sees in all of this -- what's the matter, good old-fashioned bureaucratic incompetence isn't good enough anymore? -- it's hilariously funny until you realize that tens of millions of people evidently believe the plot to be true. "If I lie in a lawsuit involving the fate of my neighbor's cow, I can go to jail," Walter Lippmann wrote in 1919:

But if I lie to a million readers in a matter involving war and peace, I can lie my head off, and, if I choose the right series of lies, be entirely irresponsible.

As I've followed the story -- and so much of it has been told so well by my CBS News colleague Sharyl Attkisson -- I keep thinking about the mission and the frustrations of the Brady Campaign To Prevent Gun Violence. The folks there are, unsurprisingly, apoplectic at the week's events. A Republican-dominated Congress that has done nothing to stop gun trafficking on the Mexican border all of sudden is concerned enough about gun trafficking on the Mexican border to quickly hold contempt hearings and a floor vote?

The Brady Campaign is smart to denounce the program -- it was, indeed, indefensible. But the gun-control advocates counsel a little bit of perspective. The Brady Campaign contends that the "Fast and Furious" program involved about 2,000 firearms crossing the border into Mexico, about 3 percent of the guns moving from U.S. gun shops to Mexico in the last four years. The center's Denis Henigan wants House Republicans, the ones chasing Eric Holder, to focus instead upon the other 97 percent of those guns. Henigan wrote:

Two years ago, Mexican President Calderon told a Joint Session of Congress that the drug cartels in his country were exploiting weak American gun laws to amass their arsenals; indeed, he said the escalation of Mexican drug violence "coincides with the lifting of the assault weapons ban in 2004." President Calderon told the Congress of his understanding that the purpose of the Second Amendment "is to guarantee good American citizens the ability to defend themselves and their Nation." "But believe me," he added, "many of these guns are not going to honest American hands."

Since his address, it has become even clearer that Mexican crime guns are originating in American gun shops. Last month, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives released its most recent data showing that, in the last five years, more than 68,000 crime guns were recovered in Mexico and traced back to the United States. The guns that "walked" across the border under the "Fast and Furious" operation constitute less than 3% of those guns. Where is Speaker Boehner's concern about the other 97%?

Not only has the Republican House majority done nothing to stem the trafficking of guns to Mexico; it has acted to block the modest efforts of the Obama Administration to address the problem. The House twice has voted to block continued implementation of the Administration's regulatory requirement that multiple sales of semi-automatic rifles in the border states be promptly reported to ATF to give the law enforcers real-time notice of the suspicious gun sales that are feeding the cartels.

Given that "Fast and Furious" has been rightly criticized for allowing guns to "walk" to Mexico, it seems odd that House Republicans would object to a regulation that is enabling ATF to better stop trafficked guns before they get to the border and to arrest the traffickers.

Dan Gross, the president of the Brady Campaign, was even more blunt. He told me Friday morning via email:

This is the ultimate hypocrisy. Lives are being lost every day because of the actions these same members of Congress refuse to take. It's just shameful. The American people need to hold them accountable. There is plenty [House Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell] Issa and others in Congress could do to keep guns out of the hands of dangerous people and actually save lives. They instead choose to perpetuate divisive party politics and the gun lobby's dark agenda. No wonder their approval rating is low.

None of this rancor excuses the poor judgment -- across two administrations -- which generated the program itself. And none of it justifies the burgeoning political battle over the scope of the documents the Republicans want Holder to hand over. Like so much else about Washington's ruined politics these days, the partisan shouting will escalate, ribbons of blame will be laid, vast amounts of time and money will be spent, and the real problem will go unsolved. That's a scandal, too, no?

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Andrew Cohen is a contributing editor at The Atlantic. He is a legal analyst for 60 Minutes and CBS Radio News, and a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice.

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