Society

ATF "Sting" Operations Ensnare The Mentally Disabled, Encouraging Them To Commit Crime Then Busting Them

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Undercover ATF agents in Milwaukee hired a man who suffered from brain damage, with an IQ in the mid-50s, to buy and sell guns for them — and then they arrested him and charged him with illegally buying and selling guns.

In another “sting” operation, agents in Portland, Ore., posing as operators of a store known as “Squid’s Smoke Shop” persuaded a mentally disabled teenager to get a tattoo of a squid on his neck, then buy guns and procure prostitutes. Agents then busted him on those charges and he got an 18-month prison sentence.

Those are just a couple of the bizarre and seemingly pointless undercover operations conducted by the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, and detailed in a shocking story by the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel that appeared over the weekend.

The story details numerous cases of an out-of-control agency that for the past 20 years has run undercover operations out of phony storefronts posing as local businesses that have occasionally netted serious criminals, but at least as often if not more frequently, deliberately ensnare mentally handicapped people and other unsuspecting victims who end up convicted of crimes that they likely never would have committed without ATF agents egging them on.

According to the Journal-Sentinel story, many of the ATF targets were petty criminals with largely insignificant offenses on their records prior to falling into the ATF traps. Many of the offenses that got them arrested by the ATF were also minor, frequently resulting in no prison time at all.

The ATF used the operations to drive up their arrest totals and gun seizure numbers, making impressive public displays but doing little to stop actual criminals or get illegal guns off the street. In some cases, the ATF agents actually set off minor crime waves that had nothing to do with guns, all in the name of maintaining their covers stories.

In one Pensacola, Fla., case, agents set up a bogus pawn shop. To maintain their cover, they bought stolen goods of all kinds, no questions asked, spurring at least seven burglaries in the city committed just to get items that were then peddled to the secretly government-operated store.

The Milwaukee paper started looking into ATF operations earlier this year, after stumbling on a 2012 case of agents in that city who befriended Chauncey Wright, a mentally disabled man — first using him simply to distribute flyers advertising their bogus business, then once they’d firmly established their ”friendship” with the man whom a doctor described as “mildly mentally retarded,” persuading him to get guns, cocaine and ecstasy for them.

After Wright did what they asked, they nailed him for seven counts of gun and drug offenses. He now faces four years in prison — though the charges could have led to a life sentence.

"To open a storefront and just have an ad hoc potluck kind of a hope that maybe you'll find somebody who might commit crimes in your presence, that makes no sense to me," former federal prosecutor Franklyn Gimbel told the Journal-Sentinel. "They got a bunch of table scraps, that's what they got."

But those “table scraps” are pure gold when it comes to extracting the taxpayer dollars that keep the ATF in business.

“When it comes to reporting to Congress for budget reasons, the numbers are all that count," one longtime ATF agent told the paper. "It is hard to define in a meaningful way to Congress that arresting one person with a long criminal history of 15 felonies is better than arresting 15 people with one felony each."

SOURCES: Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel (2), NPR