Rep. Darrel Issa (R-Calif.)

Rep. Darrel Issa (R-Calif.) Credit: Bloomberg News, 2011

Rep. Darrell Issa's probe into Operation Fast and Furious, the failed federal effort to track U.S.-purchased guns trafficked to Mexican drug cartels, has reached a new height of dudgeon. Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives (along with a handful of Democrats) have found Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt of Congress for withholding documents subpoenaed by the House Oversight Committee.

The committee's hearings on Fast and Furious have droned on for more than a year now. Yet, to date, no testimony has been taken to address the problem at the heart of the so-called scandal: Lax U.S. gun laws that benefit gun shops and do little to stop criminals from getting access to high-powered weaponry.

Committee chairman Issa (R-Calif.) saw to that when the inquiry began. He laid down the ground rule that no testimony would be admitted that commented on gun-control laws or legislation. Instead, Issa has focused his inquisitorial zeal to achieve one aim: to give the Obama administration a black eye.

Fast and Furious was an ill-fated operation of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF). The idea was to track multiple sales of weaponry made in the United States and then trafficked, often through straw buyers, to drug cartels. The crux of the inquiry is to find out if agents knowingly allowed guns to reach criminals, when they should have stopped the transfers.

An extensive investigation by Fortune magazine has shredded the case that ATF agents knowingly let weapons "walk" -- i.e., fall into criminal hands. And Issa has admitted that he had no evidence that Holder knew that they had walked. What, then, is the point of the sideshow? Here's the context that Issa would rather not have discussed: The United States is a virtually overflowing weapons warehouse -- always open, always selling. Estimates are that 2,000 guns pass south across the border into Mexico every single day.

Mexico has stringent gun laws. So its criminal element looks to the leniency of its northern neighbor to supply the weapons that have taken more than 45,000 lives since 2006, as the cartels battle for control of distribution paths in Mexico.

Agents with ATF treaded dicey territory, attempting to build prosecutable cases and intercept guns before they reached criminals -- but not interfere with legal purchases. Agents tracked transients who were laying down thousands of dollars for multiple weapons, including 476 firearms purchased in a six-month period by one man on food stamps.

What made Fast and Furious a scandal was the death of a U.S. border agent in December 2010 as he was patrolling near the border in Arizona. Two semiautomatic weapons were found at the scene of his murder. The guns, initially sold at a Phoenix-area gun shop, had been tracked through Fast and Furious.

Holder's antagonists believe that, because the transfer of those guns wasn't stopped, the U.S. Department of Justice is complicit in the border agent's death. Many Republicans believe, contrary to evidence, that agents knowingly allowed guns to reach criminals. Some believe this was part of a conspiracy to turn public sentiment against the Second Amendment.

The affair is sadly typical of American government today, with the ideologues of the opposition party willing to advance any cock and bull story to put the president in a bad light.

It is also sadly typical of our politics that we cannot have a frank discussion of sensible gun laws. Representatives and senators of both parties walk in fear the National Rifle Association -- which helpfully made it known that the contempt vote on Holder was going to figure in its scoring of members of Congress.

For all we know, there may be a middle ground on gun control. Reasonable people, including strong advocates for gun rights, might be able to agree that changes are needed, and might even be willing to enact them -- but for the long arm of the NRA. And that is what truly ought to make us furious.

Mary Sanchez is an opinion-page columnist for The Kansas City Star.

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