What the hell is Daryl Issa waiting on? One weekend in February 2006, a young man approached Mike Detty and asked about buying some AR-15s. Detty, the proprietor of Mad Dawg Global Marketing in Tucson, Ariz., is a federally licensed firearm dealer who sells the high-capacity, military-style rifles at gun shows or from the living room of his Spanish colonial-style home on the outskirts of town. AR-15s are semiautomatic, meaning that they fire one bullet for each pull of the trigger; they typically accommodate 30 rounds of .223 ammunition. This buyer said he’d pay cash for six of the rifles. Then he asked Detty when he could buy more. Detty said he’d have 20 new ones in stock the following week. The customer said he’d take them all.
“Something wasn’t right,” Detty says.“This kid is like 20 years old. Where’s the money coming from? Where are the guns going?”
Despite his suspicions, Detty decided to sell the guns. The federal background check he conducted via telephone didn’t turn up a felony conviction, protective order, or determination that the customer was mentally ill. But the following Monday morning, Detty did call the local field office of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), the arm of the U.S. Justice Dept. charged with enforcing gun-trafficking laws.
During a series of meetings at the federal building in Tucson, ATF agents concurred with Detty that this buyer almost certainly was working for a Mexican drug organization. Tucson is 60 miles from the border. The ATF agents asked Detty to keep selling rifles to the young man and any friends he brought around. The agents said they would wire Detty’s home, trace the traffickers’ movements across the border, gain the cooperation of Mexican authorities, and eventually confiscate the guns.
“Mike, I think we have a chance to take out a powerful cartel,” a supervisory agent told Detty.“Can you help us?”
“Yeah, I’ll help you guys,” Detty replied.
In March 2006 he signed a contract making him a confidential informant, with the promise that he would be paid unspecified rewards for helping to shut down a weapons pipeline to Mexico.“I thought I was doing something good,” says Detty, 52, a tall man who favors a basic firing-range wardrobe: solid-colored shirt, khaki trousers, and tan, high-laced combat boots. Beyond any rewards, he would also make a profit—in the form of his take from the undercover sales.
Over the next 19 months, Detty sold a series of suspected traffickers some 450 rifles and handguns—AR-15s, knockoff AK-47s, Colt .38s—all under the aegis of the ATF investigation. Hundreds of hours of conversations were taped. The guns were tracked, court filings show, and U.S. agents had fleeting contacts with Mexican police. But the investigation did not achieve its ambitious goals. The vast majority of the guns were never recovered by U.S. authorities. No kingpins were apprehended, no cartel taken down. Mexico’s drug war raged on.
Detty now accuses the ATF of misleading him about whether the guns he sold would be recovered. He also complains that the government shortchanged him on reward money. The Justice Dept. has admitted in federal court filings in Tucson that at least two of its prosecutors in Arizona had in 2007 and 2008 questioned the wisdom of ATF’s work with Detty, which was part of an investigation called Operation Wide Receiver. But no one tried to stop it.