In law enforcement, the only way to make more money or to gain more prestige is to leave the ranks of agents who actually enforce the law and to move into supervision and administration. The higher up the ladder of rank a former agent climbs, the more isolated he becomes from real police work and reality. At the higher ranks, politics becomes the primary concern of the administrator, as such people are commonly chosen not for their law enforcement experience and ability but for their demonstrated willingness to support and further the policies of those who appointed them. In federal law enforcement, the distance between those at the top and those who do the real work might as well be measured in astronomical units — one such unit being the distance from the Earth to the Sun.
With this in mind, consider the issue of incompetence. Law enforcement officers (LEOs) will go to any length to avoid appearing to be incompetent. This is not a small matter, for every LEO might, at any moment, have to rely on the competence of any other LEO, not merely to do the job properly, but to remain alive. LEOs know that every other LEO is constantly monitoring them for signs of incompetence. Appearing to be incompetent — for a LEO — means professional, and possibly even personal, death.
In the same way, law enforcement agencies (LEAs) tend to avoid the appearance of institutional incompetence like the plague because such incompetence tends to reasonably call into question the value of the continuing existence of their agency. This is by no means an easy task for administrators, who often consider LEOs to be barely sentient screw-ups who must be watched every moment lest they make noble administrators look bad.
Herein lies a substantial clue to understanding LEO and LEA behavior. If they — individually or as an agency — are willing to appear to be publicly incompetent, it is often because the alternative — usually the truth — is worse … much worse. It is also one of the more common indicators of a cover up. What is being covered up? Whatever they are using the smokescreen of their own incompetence to conceal.
Practical LEO procedure in cases like Gunwalker is quite simple. A straw purchase occurs when someone buys a gun for someone else who is not legally eligible to buy that gun. For example, Bob is a convicted felon who cannot legally buy or own guns. He talks his pal Steve, who can legally buy guns, into buying a gun for him. Not only is Steve in trouble for making the straw purchase, but Bob is in trouble for his part in the straw purchase and for violating the law that prevents convicted felons from owning firearms.
In many cases, ATF agents find out about straw purchases only after the fact and work backwards to recover the weapons and arrest the people involved. However, when an agent is aware of the straw purchase before it occurs — or as it occurs, as in the Gunwalker operation — he normally has an obligation to immediately seize the person making the straw purchase and, of course, the weapon or weapons involved. ATF agents are so trained, and their agency procedures are written in this way, all of which makes perfect sense. However, there are exceptions.
If an agent suspects that a larger conspiracy is going on — let’s say, that Mexican drug cartels are hiring people to make large scale straw purchases on an ongoing basis — it is reasonable not to immediately arrest every straw purchaser. Even so, great care must be used to keep track of every weapon and every person involved. Typically, enormous resources must be used to continuously track every weapon. Lower-level criminals will be grabbed and flipped to allow agents to work their way up the chain, implicating higher-ranking criminals and gathering more and more damning evidence until agents are reasonably certain that they have gone as high as possible. Only then will the initial investigation be concluded with substantial raids, arrests, and seizures of illegal guns, often simultaneously in multiple states.