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Operation Fast and Furious is the name of a federal firearms trafficking investigation in Arizona that went awry. Republicans in Congress charge that the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms deliberately allowed hundreds of guns that were purchased by middlemen for Mexican drug cartels to fall into criminal hands. Two of those guns showed up where a federal Border Patrol officer was murdered in Arizona in 2010.

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder has testified multiple times before a House committee investigating Fast and Furious. Holder's department has furnished documents to the committee, but he has withheld others, citing executive privilege. As a result, Holder became the first attorney general in history to be held in contempt of Congress by the House last month. Some are claiming that Holder and, by extension, President Obama, are presiding over a cover-up on par with Watergate.

However, the political firefight over Fast and Furious has obscured a more important concern, the toothlessness of U.S. gun-sales laws. You might assume, for example, that it would be against federal law for a U.S. citizen who doesn't have a criminal record to buy a dozen or two AK-47s at a time from a federally licensed gun shop. If so, you would be wrong in that assumption.

In fact, BATF agents have testified before the House committee that there is no federal statute that specifically prohibits firearms trafficking within the United States per se. Apparently, Arizona doesn't have one either. So federal agents must prove violations of record-keeping statutes or other laws to make a case against so-called straw purchasers, that is, someone who is given money by someone else to buy guns that will be given to the person who put up the cash. Meeting the burden of proof for these lesser crimes can be surprisingly difficult, and the punishment for violations often amounts to probation.

As a result, federal attorneys often are reluctant to bring charges, partly because it is so difficult to prove that a person is buying multiple guns with criminal intent. Absent that intent, the purchases are legal.

Federal law requires federally licensed firearms dealers who sell two or more handguns to a single person within five business days to report that to the BATF. But that requirement doesn't apply to rifles and shotguns. Nor does it apply to private sales by people who aren't licensed dealers.

The Second Amendment means that citizens in good standing must be able to purchase guns. But the law should not allow anyone other than licensed dealers to buy in bulk.

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