A licensed gun dealer in Arizona who was cooperating with federal agents in a gun smuggling probe told investigators that he was worried that firearms sold by his store could end up in the wrong hands.
The dealer's concerns are contained in a letter that Republican Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa wrote on Wednesday to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder as part of Grassley's inquiry into efforts to combat gun smuggling into Mexico. The Associated Press obtained the letter on Thursday.
Grassley's letter says e-mails from the unnamed dealer to the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives demonstrate that some firearms agents instructed gun dealers to engage in suspicious sales despite the sellers' concerns.
The senator says the dealer sent an e-mail voicing that concern nearly six months before two rifles from the same ATF operation were found at the scene a Dec. 14 shootout near the Arizona-Mexico border that mortally wounded Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry.
"So, not only were the ATF agents who later blew the whistle predicting that this operation would end in tragedy, so were the gun dealers _ even as ATF urged them to make the sales," Grassley wrote.
ATF and Justice Department officials in Washington had no immediate comment Thursday night on Grassley's letter. The U.S. Attorney's Office in Phoenix said in a written statement that it couldn't comment on the contents of Grassley's letter because it's in the process of prosecuting the gun smuggling case in question.
Firearms records show the two rifles found at the shootout were the same guns being monitored by ATF agents as part of a gun trafficking investigation and were sold by Lone Wolf Trading Company in Glendale. Lone Wolf owner Andre Howard said he didn't write the e-mails and declined to comment further.
The name of the dealer who wrote the e-mails was blackened out in e-mails attached to Grassley's letter.
The shooting that mortally wounded Terry broke out as Terry and three other agents tried to catch five suspected illegal immigrants north of the Arizona city of Nogales. The five illegal immigrants were believed to be bandits who would rob illegal immigrants as they cross into the United States. No one has been charged in Terry's shooting.
In an April 2010 email to the dealer cited by Grassley, ATF supervisor David Voth tried to ease the seller's concerns by saying the agency continually monitors those suspects. The dealer had asked for something in writing to alleviate his concerns about being blamed later on for selling those guns.
Voth agreed to line up a meeting with federal prosecutors for the seller, and Grassley said prosecutors refused to put anything in writing but assured the dealer that there were safeguards to prevent the distribution of guns sold at his business.
A month later, the dealer grew worried after viewing a news report about gun smuggling into Mexico. ""As I said in our meeting, I want to help ATF with its investigation but not at the risk of (agents') safety because I have some very close friends that are US Border Patrol agents in southern AZ," the dealer wrote.
Grassley also said that the dealer's employees on one or two occasions witnessed an exchange of money between a straw gun buyer and someone else on the premise. ATF wanted them to go forward with the sale, but the employees refused, the senator said.
The Justice Department denied in a letter to the senator in February that ATF sanctioned or knowingly allowed the sale of assault rifles to straw buyers who sneaked them into Mexico.
Grassley asks in Wednesday's letter to the attorney general whether the Justice Department still stands by that claim.