The Department of Justice’s Office of the Inspector General released a report last week outlining a number of serious flaws within the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearm’s undercover storefront operations.
While the IG did not recommend shutting down the storefronts, investigators did identify numerous areas of concern including a lack of oversight, training, planning, and expertise. The report also notes that the ATF failed to determine the success of its operations.
“We did not find evidence that ATF examined the impact of the operations to determine if they had achieved measurable success on the specific crime problems that they were designed to address,” the report read.
The ATF has been running undercover storefront operations for the last several years. The fake businesses usually revolve around secondhand stores, though the ATF also set up one in a tattoo parlor and one in a mobile van. Once the storefronts are established, ATF agents spread the word that they’re looking to buy used guns, no questions asked. Prohibited persons or those attempting to sell illegal guns are either prosecuted or used to lure additional criminals into the sting.
The strategy seems straightforward enough, but it comes with limitations. Even with proper training and oversight, the storefront technique often requires more effort and resources than it’s worth. Rather than targeting a specific potential criminal, ATF agents opened their stores in the hopes that a high-level target of federal interest would one day wander in.
That never happened. The ATF purchased hundreds of firearms but never made headway into criminal organizations. As the head of the FBI’s undercover program told the IG, storefronts are “a crude tool to target a crime problem” and that any storefront employed by the FBI would have to have predicated targets.
See also: Holder’s shocking Fast & Furious email
The sting operation the ATF set up in a mobile van exemplified the problems with the storefront strategy in general as well as the ATF’s shoddy execution in particular. The van operated for nearly a year selling sneakers and cigarettes, but produced nothing more than four guns and a small amount of drugs. As one supervisor noted in the report, “the likelihood of bumping into an individual that just happens to be walking down the street as you’re selling product out of the back of a van that’s willing to trade you a gun for sneakers is nil.”
Deficient oversight and training also resulted in a lack of clear policy in the ATF’s approach to juveniles. Though juveniles are obviously not targets of federal interest, one storefront relied on a juvenile to facilitate 15 percent of all the illegal firearms purchased by the covert team, The District Sentinel noted. One teenager at a different storefront sold ten firearms to the agents during the course of the operation, despite the fact that, according to one agent, teens weren’t “encouraged” to sell firearms.
“We found that ATF’s approach to juveniles at the storefronts was inconsistent,” the IG noted, finding that there were “few, if any” discussions from bureau headquarters about how the various storefronts should deal with minors.
The ATF, according to the IG, is fully complying with all of its recommendations. However, given the ATF’s horrible track record with its previous sting operations, e.g. Operation Fast and Furious, Operation Fearless (see video below), one shouldn’t be too optimistic that any real change will happen at the ATF.