by Dave Kopel
America's 1st Freedom, March 2014
A popular bumper sticker quips: "Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms ought to be a
convenience store, not a government agency."
Apparently taking that slogan to heart, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco,
Firearms and Explosives (BATFE) has been running phony storefronts all over the
country--out of control operations that have often featured reprehensible
tactics, in several cases including the targeting of mentally disabled persons.
Through a scheme called "Operation Fearless Distributing," the batfe in
Milwaukee set up and operated a storefront--also known as Fearless
Distributing--that sold clothing, auto parts and drug paraphernalia. And the
bureau enticed a brain-damaged man to advertise its new venture. Chauncey
Wright's iq of 54 puts him well within the bottom 1 percent of the population in
regard to mental capacity. From February to September 2012, the BATFE paid
Wright to bicycle around the city handing out flyers for the store. At BATFE's
request, Wright also brought firearms and drugs to the store, which BATFE
purchased from him at sky-high prices.
Then, BATFE had Wright arrested, and the U.S. Attorney's office charged him
Wright's mental disability is readily apparent: During conversations, he
sometimes loses attention and begins talking to an invisible person. (His brain
damage stems from an incident when he was a baby and nearly drowned in a
bathtub, deprived of oxygen for several minutes.) As experts have pointed out,
individuals with traumatic brain injuries are easily manipulated because they
are so eager to be accepted by a group.
Leigh Ann David, a program manager for the disability rights group, The Arc,
said that mentally disabled people "are easy prey ... They can't make good
judgment calls. That's a serious issue if a [BATFE] agent comes up and wants to
be your friend."
"I never heard of anything so ludicrous in my life," said a 30-year veteran
of the Milwaukee Police Department with extensive experience running gun stings.
A spokesperson for Disability Rights Wisconsin called BATFE's actions "real
exploitation" and "morally outrageous."
The modus operandi of Fearless Distributing was to get as many people
as possible to commit gun crimes. So the BATFE store offered prices double the
retail price of guns. Thus, people who could legally purchase firearms would buy
guns from legitimate gun stores and then immediately bring the gun to Fearless
Distributing to sell for a 100 percent profit.
Obviously, this is not an operation designed to "get crime guns off the
street," although it probably emptied gun racks at a few nearby stores. But it
did put guns on the street. Some guns were even resold to convicted felons, who
exited the store with their guns--cash and carry.
Federal Bureau of Investigation agents had initially agreed to participate in
the Fearless Distributing sting, but quickly dropped out after seeing the
operation's multiple flaws.
On Sept. 13, 2013, three BATFE guns, including an automatic Colt M4 rifle,
were stolen from an agent's vehicle. B.J. Zapor, the BATFE field division
director in St. Paul, Minn., responsible for Wisconsin and three other states,
ordered Fearless Distributing shut down. The local agents, however, claimed they
thought the order meant the store should shut down for a single day, and Zapor
did not follow up to ensure that his order had been carried out.
Then on Sept. 24, the U.S. attorney ordered the store be closed for good,
which it finally was on Oct. 3. When BATFE agents left, the store's burglar
alarm was turned on, but it was not functioning. The burglar alarm operated via
a phone line, and the phone line had been removed eight months prior, as
approved by BATFE agents at the store. There was no deadbolt on the door.
On Oct. 7, someone broke the store's electric meter, thus disabling the
security cameras, and over the next two days, burglars loaded Fearless
Distributing's $40,000 worth of inventory into a U-Haul truck and drove away.
"Operation Fearless Distributing" lasted 10 months, and ended with charges
brought against 30 people, three of whom were wrongly charged. One of the men
wrongly charged was in federal prison at the time he supposedly committed the
crime. The vast majority of the charges were for low-level offenses, and few of
the defendants had violent histories.
Interestingly, the abuses of "Operation Fearless Distributing" came to light
only because of the same bungling and arrogance that had facilitated the
burglary of the store. Once BATFE finally vacated the premises, the landlord
found that the building had been badly damaged--and that the agents had left
behind secret documents about undercover investigations.
According to the landlord, BATFE inflicted $15,000 in damages to the
property, yet when the landlord complained, he claimed a BATFE attorney warned
him to stop or he could be charged with threatening a federal agent. So the
landlord complained to the local newspaper.
The scandal was initially reported in February 2013 by the Milwaukee
Journal-Sentinel. BATFE promised an investigation, and the Milwaukee
operation was said to be "isolated." So far, BATFE has not announced any
results, or reforms as the result of, its internal investigation. An inspector
general at Eric Holder's Department of Justice has also commenced an
investigation, but no results have been released as this article goes to press.
Meanwhile, the Journal-Sentinel kept up its own investigation
throughout the year, with a blockbuster report published on Dec. 7. The
newspaper found that targeting of the mentally disabled in storefront stings was
not confined to Milwaukee.
Here are findings about other BATFE "stores" discovered by the
Portland, Ore. Squid's Smoke Shop persuaded (and paid for)
teenagers--one of them mentally disabled--to be tattooed on their necks and
shoulders with the store's logo: A squid smoking a marijuana cigarette.
Squid's Smoke Shop was located right across the street from H.B. Lee Middle
School. Crimes in school zones carry extra-long sentences, but deliberately
locating an operation designed to attract criminals near a school obviously
conflicts with the whole premise and purpose of those laws. On top of that,
Squid's Smoke Shop provided a handy location for seventh graders to purchase
BATFE described the location of Squid's Smoke Shop as an accident, and said
it was the only commercial location where the agency could get a month-to-month
lease. But in fact, BATFE signed a one-year lease for the premises.
At least six BATFE "stores" have been located within 1,000 feet of a school.
BATFE lured juveniles into Squid's by providing a free Xbox video game system
for them to play in the store.
One of BATFE's chumps with a Squid's tattoo bartered an ounce of marijuana
for some clothing from Squid's. He was later charged with selling marijuana in a
school zone, a serious federal felony.
The other guy with the tattoo, who is mentally disabled, was sentenced to 18
months for selling a sawed-off shotgun and procuring prostitutes to attend a
Squid's party. A federal judge did, at least, order BATFE to pay for the removal
of the tattoos.
Before vacating the leased space in Portland, BATFE agents also trashed the
place, cut holes in the walls, and ripped out a ceiling spotlight so ineptly
that they punctured a hole in the building's brand-new roof. According to the
property's owner, BATFE has not paid for any of the damage its agents caused.
Wichita, Kan. The BATFE store Bandit Trading specialized in hip-hop
clothing. They found a local man with an IQ in the mid-50s, whom they described
as "slow-headed." The man had a prior conviction for burglary, and told the
"store" managers that he was trying to stay out of trouble.
The agents befriended him by hiring him for odd jobs in exchange for
cigarettes, clothing and cash, and they sometimes took him to McDonald's for
meals. At their request, he brought them more than a hundred guns. He was then
prosecuted for more than a hundred counts of being a felon in possession of a
weapon. Federal sentencing guidelines indicate a sentence of 10 to 12 years, but
the judge gave him a break, sentencing him to three years.
BATFE also asked a man who was selling a shotgun to the store to use a saw to
shorten the barrel, and even told him what kind of saw to use. After doing so,
the man was charged with the serious federal felony of selling a sawed-off
Albuquerque, N.M. Guillermo Medel was brain-damaged from having been
hit by a drunk driver when he was seven years old. Medel was also a drug addict
with felony convictions for drug possession and aggravated assault. He had never
trafficked in guns until BATFE persuaded him to do so.
Aiming to get Medel to commit an especially serious crime, agents asked him
to bring them a machine gun. He had no idea what a machine gun was, so he was
given a "tutorial" by BATFE agents of the Jokerz Traderz pawnshop. He found a
machine gun, and brought it to them. He was later sentenced to eight years in
prison. A federal judge dismissed charges against another victim of Jokerz
Traderz, who had "an extensive psychiatric history."
Pensacola, Fla. The BATFE pawnshop Anything for a Buck was run by a convicted felon. (He had agreed to do so in exchange for not being prosecuted for having been found with an illegal gun.) A man named Jeremy Norris had put a classified ad in the newspaper to sell his guns. BATFE called Norris, who has an IQ of 76 (borderline mentally disabled) and no criminal convictions. BATFE spurred him to sell his guns at steep prices to Anything for a Buck. The agents joked among themselves that Norris was "half-retarded." He was also a drug addict, and desperate to get money to feed his habit. Norris knew that the pawnshop buyer was a convicted felon, so Norris's sale of guns to him were federal felonies.
Norris ended up being sentenced to probation, in light of his low IQ.
Anything for a Buck had also ensnared several other mentally disabled persons
but the federal prosecutors in Pensacola made the decision to refuse to bring
charges against these defendants, which BATFE had handed to them on a silver
However, the felon who ran Anything for a Buck for BATFE fared well as he was
allowed to buy and sell goods for his own account at the pawnshop, and was
invited to BATFE office parties. After he pulled a gun on someone outside a bar,
he could have been sentenced to seven years but instead received six months in
jail, plus a year in a residential release center.
He flunked out of the residential center in two months and could have been
sent to prison, but instead was sentenced to house arrest with no ankle
bracelet, just random check-in phone calls. The leniency was justified by his
"physical and mental health conditions."
Anything for a Buck also functioned as a high-priced buyer for stolen goods.
Since legitimate pawnshops try to make sure that they are not buying stolen
goods, the existence of a pawnshop paying extravagant prices for goods that were
known to be stolen likely stimulated additional burglaries and robberies in the
area. Few of the stolen goods were ever returned to their owners.
Atlanta, Ga. The BATFE's phony pawnshop and smoke shop ATL Blaze also
knowingly bought stolen property including guns that had just been stolen from
law enforcement vehicles. The local sheriff's office and police departments
wasted many hours trying to solve the thefts and recover the stolen guns, since
BATFE never reported to anyone that the guns had been purchased by ATL Blaze
within hours of the thefts.
In Milwaukee and elsewhere, known felons were even repeatedly allowed to
leave the stores carrying guns--including one instance in which the felon said he
was planning to shoot a personal enemy with the gun.
Contradicting BATFE's assertion that Milwaukee was a rogue operation, the
similar operations in other cities have been praised by BATFE headquarters.
Upper-level BATFE personnel blamed "Fearless Distributing" on an isolated
problem with poor supervision. But in fact, "Fearless Distributing" received
high-level authorization from BATFE headquarters in January 2012.
"Fearless Distributing" was even put into the agency's Monitored Case
Program--a program implemented as a reform after "Operation Fast and Furious" to
provide headquarters oversight of potentially problematic operations. But the
Monitored Case personnel apparently never saw anything wrong with "Fearless
For years, BATFE has been running tattoo parlors, pawnshops, recording
studios, thrift shops and other businesses. There were no guidelines about how
to do so until 2013, when guidelines were created after the Milwaukee scandal
was made public.
One BATFE agent, speaking anonymously, attributed the problem to a desire to
report large numbers of arrests to Congress in order to win more funding. As a
result, a large volume of low-quality arrests might sound much better than a few
arrests of genuinely dangerous violent criminals.
You might wonder if the activities reported here constitute "entrapment." In
a practical sense, some would certainly seem to qualify. But the Supreme Court
and lower federal courts have defined "entrapment" so narrowly that it is almost
never a viable defense to criminal charges. To assert entrapment, the defendant
must show that he was not "predisposed" to commit the crime. Often, the simple
fact that a defendant agreed to commit the crime is taken as proof that he was
predisposed to do so.
One BATFE agent, speaking anonymously, said: "Taking advantage of the
handicapped is pretty cheap, that's pretty low. ... We take on the worst of the
worst, not the mentally disadvantaged kid." The agent's quote is an important
reminder that BATFE has plenty of agents who, like most law enforcement officers
in the United States, want to serve and protect, not to oppress and abuse.
Of course, any large organization is going to have a small percentage of bad
apples and knuckleheads, and we don't mean to suggest that batfe is unique in
this regard. What makes batfe so dysfunctional is that management rewards the
abusers, rather than disciplining or firing them.
University of Pittsburgh law professor David Harris, who studies law
enforcement tactics, said, "If your agency is in good shape with policy,
training, supervision and accountability, the bad apples will not be able to
take things to this level."
One of the favorite talking points of the gun-ban lobby is that anything the
BATFE does wrong is the NRA's fault. Because of the NRA, these groups claim, the
BATFE budget is too small.
Actually, that budget has grown from $771 million in 2001 to $1.15 billion in
2012, which apparently leaves plenty of money to run stores whose business model
is to sell products for less than they cost, and to buy products for double
their ordinary price.
NRA is also said to be responsible for poor leadership at BATFE, since the
Association has fought against the Senate confirmation of BATFE director
nominees who have established anti-gun records.
Yet, the fact is that President Barack Obama appointed B. Todd Jones as
acting director of BATFE in the summer of 2011. Jones was confirmed as director
by the Senate in July 2013. "Operation Fearless Distributing" transpired while
Jones was running the agency.
Which begs the question: What has Director Jones done with the people who
were responsible for the "Fearless Distributing" fiasco?
Bernard "B.J." Zapor was head of the St. Paul Field Division, which was in
charge of Wisconsin and three other states. Shortly after Fearless Distributing
was shut down, Zapor was promoted to headquarters in D.C., in charge of eight
field divisions. Then in June 2013, Zapor was put in charge of the Phoenix BATFE
office--the office that ran "Operation Fast and Furious."
The man in charge of the Milwaukee office during the early stages of
"Operation Fearless Distributing" was Fred Milanowski. He, too, now works in
Phoenix. Jacqueline Sutton, who directly ran "Operation Fearless Distributing,"
now works at BATFE headquarters.
These promotions and moves bring up an important question in the minds of
thinking people: If you were director of BATFE and wanted to clean up the
Phoenix office after the "Fast and Furious" scandal, would you give that
responsibility to the people in charge of "Operation Fearless Distributing"?
Time will tell whether these troubling reports about BATFE's tactics will be
further substantiated, and if so, whether those responsible will be dealt with
accordingly. In the meantime, they lend further credence to the notion that
"Fast and Furious" was not merely an "isolated," "rogue," or "botched"
operation, but evidence of systemic mismanagement and dysfunction within batfe.
They also counsel against giving BATFE even broader enforcement authority in the
form of additional gun control laws. Instead, BATFE should focus on getting its
own house in order and use existing laws to target, rather than manufacture,
serious criminal activity.