The firestorm erupted in a lawless canyon on the rugged flanks of Nogales, Arizona. As the shooters scattered, a body lay limp in the darkness.
On that cold night in December 2010, a misguided program called Fast and Furious would be forever linked to the death of U.S. Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry. Two guns from that program, aimed at tracing weapons obtained by straw buyers for drug cartels, were found near the spot where smugglers had killed Terry.
That discovery revealed just how off-track the federal sting had become, as more than 1,700 weapons sold to straw buyers made their way to Mexican drug syndicates—all under the watch of agents with the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. Both the ATF and the U.S. Justice Department, which oversees the ATF, have drawn fierce criticism from Congress, with repeated calls for the resignation of U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder.
More than two years after Terry's death, some local gun merchants say they've also become the victims of Fast and Furious, describing constant inspections by angry, indignant ATF agents that have reached the level of harassment.
If meant to intimidate, this oversight is working; at a recent gun show on Tucson's southside, dealer after dealer complained about heavy-handedness by the ATF. However, none would allow their names to be used in this story, fearing retribution.
One dealer sat behind an array of knives and pistols, spread like lethal jewels among a row of glass cases. He specializes in military-type firearms, he explained, which makes him a particularly tantalizing federal target. That's also why he didn't have a single military weapon on display at the show.
"I'm going through an ATF audit now, and I just didn't want to push the envelope," he said, adding that ATF agents had already been encamped at his shop for nearly a month. "They come and look at your books, and they want to see open entries. Which is OK, but I started doing business in 1980, so they go all the way back to 1980 every time they come in.
"The first time they did an audit—after they hadn't been here for five years—they were in my store for three months."
Charles Heller is a spokesman for the Arizona Citizens Defense League, a Tucson-based gun-rights group. He claims the ATF has a history of hounding legitimate dealers—a pattern that's grown worse since 2010. "It is absolutely irritating," he says. By cracking down on law-abiding dealers, "they're trying to show that there are somehow positive results from Fast and Furious."
It's all quite ironic, he says, considering that government agents were the ones letting criminals walk away with guns during the sting operation. "But this is de rigueur for the ATF. They are a rogue agency."
Such characterizations of the ATF arise, in part, from lingering anger over its disastrous 1993 raid on a heavily armed Branch Davidian compound near Waco, Texas. That assault on the religious enclave, in part aimed at seizing illegal weapons, culminated in the fiery deaths of more than 80 sect members, including 22 children.
That view is obviously not shared by Tom Mangan, an ATF spokesman in Phoenix who denies that his agency targets honest dealers. "Are we adjusting the way we're doing business with respect to inspections or things like that (after) Fast and Furious?" he asks. "Absolutely not."
If merchants feel like they're facing tougher scrutiny, he says, that's probably because a manpower boost has allowed the ATF to catch up on long-overdue inspections. Between 2009 and 2012, the number of inspectors in Southern Arizona jumped from three to eight. They're responsible for overseeing approximately 430 federally licensed firearms dealers in a six-county area.
The manpower boost, meager as it is, comes from additional funding through the Southwest Border Initiative, a collaborative effort among federal law-enforcement agencies to combat drug-trafficking and Mexican cartel violence.
Nonetheless, along with enhanced enforcement comes a healthy respect for the U.S. Constitution, says Special Agent Mangan. "We follow a fine line with regards to people's Second Amendment rights, and they certainly have a right to own and possess guns. But criminals absolutely have no business possessing guns."
Gun shops may also sense a greater ATF presence, he says, as the emphasis shifts from firearms shows, where sustained pressure has driven many unlicensed dealers out of business. Now, straw buyers for gangs and cartels "don't spend a lot of time at the shows, because they know we're there. It's more convenient for them to go to a bricks-and-mortar FFL (federal firearms licensee). But we've always had a great relationship with the FFLs, because they're pretty good about policing themselves."
Among those bricks-and-mortar stores is Second Amendment Sports in midtown Tucson, where manager Josh Beck describes regular federal inspections as simply a way of life. "I just think the gun-show guys aren't used to it," he says. "We've got a six-days-a-week gun show, so we get an audit once a year, or once every two years. It's been constant. That's not out of the norm for ATF, especially with the gun shops."
But that constancy did not sit well at the gun show, where another dealer, who specializes in antique weapons, described a steady drumbeat of ATF agents at his door. "They audited everything I own," said the merchant, standing behind a row of vintage rifles. "Then they came back this year, and they were there pretty steadily for seven months."
Agents constantly misread his records, he said, and claimed he had guns that didn't exist. And soon, they'd be back for another round of headaches, something he found puzzling after more than two decades in business, and formerly good relations with the agency.
He blames Fast and Furious for the change. "I've dealt with the ATF for 25 years, and they've always been reasonable. They didn't cut me any slack, but they didn't give me any crap. But these people now are looking for trouble."
The dealer stepped back from the counter and leaned on a post. "They're after me," he said. "They want to put me out of business."