Regardless of how the political debate on gun control shakes out, the new head of the Upper Midwest office of the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives says his agents will keep doing what they can to get firearms off the street — by targeting the most violent offenders.
Scott Sweetow was named special agent in charge of the ATF's St. Paul Field Division in January, a division that covers Minnesota, Wisconsin, North Dakota and South Dakota. In a wide-ranging interview with The Associated Press this week, Sweetow discussed challenges in the region as well as the ATF's priority to focus on the "worst of the worst" offenders. The ATF is part of the U.S. Justice Department and focuses on firearms, explosives and violent crime.
"Firearms have been around for hundreds of years. Crime being committed with firearms is going to continue no matter what," Sweetow said. "No single law ... is going to do away with it. ... We have a job to do, and regardless of what legislation is passed, ultimately we are going to have to find a way to make things work."
Sweetow has spent the last six years in the ATF's Atlanta office and has been the special agent in charge there since September 2011.
He said he was glad to have that executive experience under his belt when he came to St. Paul a month ago and in his first week was hit with a "buzz saw of negative publicity." That included reports about a troubled Milwaukee-area ATF sting operation, and news that a former FBI head in Minnesota had publicly criticized President Barack Obama's nominee for ATF director.
"It was a heck of a week," he said.
Among the problems with the 10-month ATF storefront operation designed to bust felons for drug and gun offenses: Burglars stole $35,000 in merchandise and an agent's machine gun. But Sweetow, 50, said that when looking at the number of weapons taken off the street (the storefront purchased nearly 150 guns) and the number of people who will face charges (about 30), the case was a good one.
"Absolutely there were some administrative mistakes made, some procedural mistakes made, and we are very aggressively looking at all of those issues from top to bottom," Sweetow said.
He said storefront and sting operations are not going away, but the bureau will do some things differently in the future. He did not elaborate. An internal review is under way.
The ATF hasn't had a permanent director since 2006, something that Sweetow characterized as disruptive. He said having a permanent director would be helpful, and Obama's nominee, B. Todd Jones, would be a good fit. Jones is currently acting director of the ATF and the U.S. attorney for Minnesota.
Sweetow, a native of Tucson, Ariz., began his ATF career in 1990 in Los Angeles, where he spent several years assigned to an arson and explosives group. As part of ATF's National Response Team, he responded to and investigated high-profile cases such as the bombings in Oklahoma City and Centennial Olympic Park in Atlanta.
Page 2 of 2 - He's also worked in various ATF roles in Los Angeles, Washington and Phoenix and was the first ATF agent to deploy to Iraq. He was there in 2003 as homemade bombs were emerging as a threat.
Sweetow has spent his first month in St. Paul meeting with local and federal authorities, and he hopes to work with them to find the worst offenders. He said this region presents some challenges for agents, including its diverse landscape and the shared border with Canada. He also said many of the gangs in the area operate as small crews that are formed for the purpose of committing a specific crime, though there are large, organized gangs in Milwaukee.
But if the ATF keeps its focus on violent crime, he said, the type of street gang won't really matter.
"Who are the people that if we could somehow take them out of the game, violent crime would drop in your areas?" he said. "That's really how we're looking big picture at crime in the four-state area. We want to focus on the people that are really out there committing the violence."