How to Read an ATF Press Release: Grenade Launcher Edition

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosive (and Really Big Fires) is in a never-ending fight to justify its existence. As we’ve reported (equally endlessly), there’s nothing that that ATF does that other local, state, tribal and federal couldn’t do. Do do. To draw attention away from that fact, the ATF releases a steady stream of press releases trumpeting its success as a law enforcement ass-kicker. Taken individually and without scrutiny, the ATF is da bomb (so to speak). Which is exactly how the mainstream media rolls. Google search the names of the men indicted and you’ll see that this ATF press release was republished verbatim across the length and breadth of these here United States. Look closer, as TTAG is wont to do, and the story is not so clear and the agency’s rep not quite so impressive . . .

BIRMINGHAM — A federal grand jury today indicted two Texas men for surreptitiously trying to buy an automatic grenade launcher, announced U.S. Attorney Joyce White Vance and ATF Special Agent in Charge Glenn Anderson.

Surreptitiously? You mean they didn’t walk into a U.S. gun dealer and ask for five assault rifles and an automatic grenade launcher?

The indictment filed in U.S. District Court charges ADAM EMMANUEL LEWIS, 27, and ANTONIO RODRIGUEZ-ARELLANO, 25, with conspiring to possess a machine gun that was not registered to either man in the National Firearms Registration and Transfer Record. The men were attempting to buy an MK-19 fully automatic grenade launcher from an undercover agent with the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, according to the indictment.

Wow! An MK-19? What in the world would these guys want with what wikipedia describes as a “belt fed, blowback operated, air cooled, crew served, fully automatic weapon that . . . fires 40 mm grenades at a cyclic rate of 325 to 375 rounds per minute, giving a practical rate of fire of 60 rounds per minute (rapid) and 40 rounds per minute (sustained)”?

It’s THE question. If Mr. Lewis and Mr. Rodrigues-Arellano were purchasing this fearsome weapon for Mexican drug lords, that represents a major change in the nature and importance of the so-called and unquantified “iron river” of guns smuggled from Bob’s Gun Store to Los Zetas. If the indictees are [imported?] domestic terrorists buying the MK-19 for an attack on Americans, holy cow!

Of course, you’d expect the feds to mention either of those facts—if they were true. It would be major league headline stuff. As they didn’t, one wonders if we’re looking at an ATF “sting.” In other words, my not-so-favorite feds lured Lewis and Rodriguez-Arellano into felonious behavior in order to have “in-house” felonious behavior to stop.

Lewis and Rodriguez-Arellano were looking for a low-key purchase of an illegal grenade launcher, plain and simple, Anderson said. Fortunately, this investigation stopped that from happening. Firearm trafficking cases like this one prevent violence, save lives and keep illegal weapons off the street, he said.

“Plain and simple?” There’s nothing, I repeat not one thing, plain and simple about buying a weapon like the MK-19 grenade launcher. Wikipedia:

Upon impact, the grenade can kill anyone within the radius of five meters, and wound them within the radius of 15 meters. It can also punch through two inches of rolled homogeneous armor with a direct hit (0 Degree Obliquity), which means it can penetrate most infantry fighting vehicles and armored personnel carriers. It is especially effective when used against enemy infantry formations.

Reading between the lines of the press release, it seems highly likely that the ATF initiated this non-transaction.

According to the indictment, LEWIS’ and RODGRIGUEZ-ARELLANO’s attempts to buy the grenade launcher developed as follows: LEWIS contacted an ATF confidential informant on Nov. 29 to arrange the purchase of an unregistered automatic grenade launcher. On Dec. 3, both LEWIS and RODGRIGUEZ-ARELLANO traveled from Texas to Cullman in an attempt to buy the weapon. In subsequent phone calls from Dec. 3 to Dec. 15, LEWIS and RODRIGUEZ-ARELLANO negotiated the payment and logistics for buying the grenade launcher with an undercover ATF agent.

The release suggests that Lewis and Rodriguez-Arellano just happened to hit up an ATF informant and ask for a weapon of mass destruction, “plain and simple.” If it wasn’t a sting to start, it was to finish. One wonders how many phone calls the ATF had with the indicted men during those 12 days, who initiated the calls and, of course, exactly what was said.

On Dec. 15, RODRIGUEZ-ARELLANO traveled from Texas to Leeds, where he paid the undercover agent about $24,000 for the MK-19 automatic grenade launcher, according to the indictment.

RODRIGUEZ-ARELLANO and LEWIS both were arrested Dec. 15. RODRIGUEZ-ARELLANO was arrested in Leeds and LEWIS was arrested in Texas. The men could face a maximum penalty of five years in prison and a $250,000 fine.

Twenty-four grand is a lot of cash money. Where did it come from? Again, is this part of a larger criminal conspiracy? Plain and simple, the ATF’s silence on the subject is deafening. If it IS part of something bigger (e.g., a planned terrorist attack), five years in the slammer and a $250k fine is a slap on the wrist. So . . . what?

The ATF investigated the case with assistance from the Cullman County Sheriff’s Department Narcotics Enforcement Team. Assistant U.S. Attorney Enid Dean Athanas is prosecuting the case.

Members of the public are reminded that an indictment contains only charges. A defendant is presumed innocent of the charges and it will be the government’s burden to prove a defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt at trial.

I can’t remember reading a single ATF press release that didn’t co-credit another law enforcement agency. Which speaks to my point about the law enforcement overlap that defines the ATF, even as it argues against its existence. Anyway, what do narcotics have to do with this?

My guess: Mr. Lewis and Mr. Rodrigues-Arellano were low-level criminals involved in drug smuggling. The ATF used the men to put another scalp on their collective belt. If not, I’m all ears. Meanwhile, members of the public are reminded that the ATF is unnecessary unless proven otherwise. Which it continues to struggle to do, at our expense.