A Department of Justice (DOJ) investigation has found no evidence that the anti-fraud program “Operation Choke Point” targeted gun retailers, contrary to what conservative media outlets and the National Rifle Association (NRA) have long claimed.
Operation Choke Point was conceived as an anti-fraud program by the DOJ's Consumer Protection Branch in November 2012 based on the suspicion that some banks -- acting with knowledge or willful blindness -- entered into businesses relationships with individuals engaged in fraud. As an early memo explained, Choke Point was designed as “a strategy to attack Internet, telemarketing, mail, and other mass market fraud against consumers, by choking fraudsters' access to the banking system.”
Conservative media and the NRA have repeatedly insisted that Choke Point was part of a government conspiracy to target gun retailers -- based on the belief that the Obama administration is “anti-gun.” But a new report from the DOJ Office of Professional Responsibility (OPR) -- the office responsible for “investigating allegations of misconduct involving Department attorneys” -- has decisively concluded “that the evidence did not demonstrate that Operation Choke Point” was used to target firearm sellers.
In January 2014, the Republican-led House Oversight Committee opened an investigation into Choke Point to determine whether the program may have “inappropriately target[ed] two lawful financial services: third-party payment processing and online lending.”
Although no mention of gun retailers was made during the first congressional inquiries, NRA News host Cam Edwards began connecting Choke Point to claims by some firearm retailers that banks were refusing to do business with them.
With no evidence to bear that claim out, Choke Point then became a regular topic of discussion by the NRA and conservative media, which characterized it as another Obama administration scandal. The anti-fraud program was discussed dozens of times on the NRA's radio and (since-cancelled) television show, and the NRA's lobbying wing, the Institute for Legislation Action, offered frequent updates on the so-called scandal.
Choke Point was also widely reported on by the conservative Washington Times, which interviewed gun retailers who claimed their business relationships with banks had been terminated because of the program. (At the time, Media Matters exposed the dubiousness of these claims. For example, one gun retailer had his account terminated by his bank months before Choke Point was even proposed by DOJ.) The Washington Times editorial board declared, “Obama wants to use the banks to void the Second Amendment.”
False claims about Choke Point's targets were also picked up by Fox News, with network contributor Katie Pavlich claiming that DOJ was “discriminating” against gun owners. As recently as April 13, Fox News correspondent Trace Gallagher falsely reported on The Kelly File that “Operation Choke Point was created by the Obama administration to choke out businesses it finds objectionable, like gun shops, casinos, and tobacco sellers.”
None of this is true, according to the DOJ OPR investigation, which examined “memoranda, subpoenas, and contemporaneous emails” related to the operation. The July 7 report found no evidence that Choke Point had “compelled banks to terminate business relationships” with firearm sellers (emphasis added):
OPR also concluded that the evidence did not demonstrate that Operation Choke Point compelled banks to terminate business relationships with other lawful businesses, a concern raised in your letter and the Staff Report. Indeed, OPR found no evidence establishing that any CPB attorney intentionally targeted any of the industries listed in the Staff Report (including credit repair companies, debt consolidation and forgiveness programs, online gambling-related operations, government grant or will-writing kits, pornography, online tobacco or firearms sales, pharmaceutical sales, sweepstakes, magazine subscriptions, etc.). None of the subpoenas or memoranda issued or drafted in connection with Operation Choke Point focused on specific categories of purportedly fraudulent businesses, except for fraudulent Internet payday lending, to the limited extent discussed above. Moreover, the CPB attorneys' e-mail records contained no discussion or even mention of targeting any such specific industries.
As the report noted, there was no evidence that attorneys involved in Choke Point ever discussed firearm businesses at any time during Choke Point.