WASHINGTON (AP) — The Justice Department’s inspector general is conducting a four-city examination into storefront undercover operations run by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives to assess whether they pose a danger to the public.
“It creates a situation where people maybe start to do criminal activity that they might not have otherwise undertaken,” said Steve Gradert, Federal Public Defender.
The ATF runs sting operations in various cities, often as part of an effort to catch arms traffickers who bring stolen weapons into storefronts where agents act as buyers.
The IG’s office said Thursday it is looking into storefront operations in Milwaukee, Pensacola, Fla., St. Louis, Mo., and Wichita, Kan.
“There were felons who were allowed to leave the store while armed. That’s a big problem and known by the ATF as gun walking, allowing armed felons to leave the sight of a federal agent. It’s not supposed to ever happen,” said John Deidrich with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
IG Michael Horowitz said if his office learns of information that might warrant looking at additional storefront operations, it will consider expanding the review to include them.
The ATF ran a Milwaukee storefront operation intended to bust felons for drug and gun offenses, but the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported in January 2013 that no major drug dealers or gang members were taken down. The store was robbed of $35,000 in merchandise, an agent’s machine gun was stolen and a document listing undercover agents was left behind.
The ATF store opened in Milwaukee in early 2012 as Fearless Distributing. It offered designer clothes, athletic shoes, jewelry and drug paraphernalia for sale.
Despite the allegations and investigations, John Ham, the ATF spokesman out of Kansas City says that the Wichita undercover gun sting has done exactly what it was supposed to catch the criminals.
“They’ve been a very, very effective way for taking firearms off the street. And specifically crime guns. Guns that have been reported stolen. Guns that are traditionally used in violent crimes,” said Ham.
The Department of Justice did not have much to say, other than it is investigating. Sources say that the ATF is doing an internal review of its undercover gun buys as well.