On Saturday, gun rights advocates will be organizing at least 121 rallies across the country in a “day of resistance” to President Obama’s gun violence prevention proposals. But some tea party activists are questioning the credentials of the group organizing the rallies, a Mesa, Arizona-based outfit called TheTeaParty.net that’s been criticized as a data-harvesting operation designed to vacuum up contact information and credit card numbers from unsuspecting and largely clueless conservative activists. They’ve complained that the group raises tons of money under the tea party name but doesn’t spend much to further the movement, and they’re skeptical of its move into the gun debate.
Robin Stublen, a Florida tea party activist and gun owner, is suspicious of the Day of Resistance event. “All my life I have been around guns of some sort,” he says. “Some are truly works of art. I respect them. I would never think of using them as the next political toy to make a fast buck. I seriously doubt if any of these so-called ‘leaders’ could tell the business end of a gun, let alone take them apart and clean them. They are opportunists and should be ignored.”
TheTeaPary.net was founded by Todd Cefaratti, an Arizona man who is the CEO of a “lead generation” company for the reverse-mortgage industry and who has inserted himself into tea party politics in recent years. In 2011, TheTeaParty.net sponsored a truck at NASCAR’s Camping World Truck Series, and it made a big splash by sponsoring a tea party “unity rally” at the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Florida, last year. It’s been a sponsor of the Conservative Political Action Conference in DC this year and last, raising its profile among conservative activists.
In the annals of impossible assignments, Dave Voth’s ranked high. In 2009 the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives promoted Voth to lead Phoenix Group VII, one of seven new ATF groups along the Southwest border tasked with stopping guns from being trafficked into Mexico’s vicious drug war.
Some call it the “parade of ants”; others the “river of iron.” The Mexican government has estimated that 2,000 weapons are smuggled daily from the U.S. into Mexico. The ATF is hobbled in its effort to stop this flow. No federal statute outlaws firearms trafficking, so agents must build cases using a patchwork of often toothless laws. For six years, due to Beltway politics, the bureau has gone without permanent leadership, neutered in its fight for funding and authority. The National Rifle Association has so successfully opposed a comprehensive electronic database of gun sales that the ATF’s congressional appropriation explicitly prohibits establishing one.
Voth, 39, was a good choice for a Sisyphean task. Strapping and sandy-haired, the former Marine is cool-headed and punctilious to a fault. In 2009 the ATF named him outstanding law-enforcement employee of the year for dismantling two violent street gangs in Minneapolis. He was the “hardest working federal agent I’ve come across,” says John Biederman, a sergeant with the Minneapolis Police Department. But as Voth left to become the group supervisor of Phoenix Group VII, a friend warned him: “You’re destined to fail.”
Voth’s mandate was to stop gun traffickers in Arizona, the state ranked by the gun-control advocacy group Legal Community Against Violence as having the nation’s “weakest gun violence prevention laws.” Just 200 miles from Mexico, which prohibits gun sales, the Phoenix area is home to 853 federally licensed firearms dealers. Billboards advertise volume discounts for multiple purchases.