How ATF’s Gun-Buying Sting in Milwaukee Went Wrong

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From the outset, an undercover gun-buying sting by federal agents in Milwaukee was plagued by confusion, reports the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Agents ofr the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives wanted to target their longtime nemesis, the Outlaws. They had been going after the aging motorcycle gang with what they dubbed “Operation Smokin’ Piston,” breaking up untaxed cigarette operations, but were having little success. ATF agents familiar with the Outlaws elsewhere came to Milwaukee to offer some advice: Ditch the tobacco operation. The Outlaws were savvy to that type of sting. Instead try a fake storefront, a “surplus shop” and sell T-shirts, motorcycle parts and other goods as a front.

Higher-ups in the agency wanted a broader focus to the operation. With a violent crime rate double the national average, Milwaukee had more pressing problems. An ATF supervisor wanted the operation to target all gun violence in the city.  After the plan had been approved and without permission from headquarters, the location of the storefront was changed and Operation Fearless Distributing was hatched. It was just the beginning of an operation marred by mismanagement and mistakes that would ultimately prompt major reforms in how the federal agency conducts undercover storefront stings. Those details and others were included in a report last week from the Justice Department’s Office of the Inspector General, three years after a Journal Sentinel investigation of the operation. The ATF has stopped running storefronts for now, but leaders stand by the tactic as an effective way to combat gun violence, noting the many guns and drugs seized in such operations and charges filed. Today, the newspaper takes another look at the affair.

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