Gun shop owner expressed concerns early on in "gunwalker" scandal

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Guns recovered by ATF Agents
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Damning, newly-obtained emails show that a key gun shop owner made explicit concerns in writing last year in the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms' "gunwalking" scandal.

Starting in late 2009, ATF allegedly directed an undetermined number of Phoenix-area gun shop owners to go ahead with sales of thousands of assault rifles and other weapons to suspicious buyers. Insiders claim ATF knew the buyers were connected to Mexico's drug cartels, but let the guns "walk" onto the street anyway in a misguided attempt to obtain intelligence. ATF and the Justice Department have denied that.

Investigators from Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) obtained the emails this week.

In an April 13, 2010 email, the unnamed gun shop owner told ATF he was worried how he'd be viewed if the guns he sold ended up in the wrong hands.

"We just want to make sure we are cooperating with ATF and that we are not viewed as selling to bad guys," the gun shop owner wrote to ATF Phoenix Supervisor David Voth. The gun shop owner asked for a letter of understanding to "alleviate concerns of some type of recourse against us down the road for selling these items."

ATF Supervisor Voth tried to reassure the cooperating gun shop owner. "I understand that the frequency with which some individuals under investigation by our office have been purchasing firearms from your business has caused concerns for you... However, if helps put you at east we (ATF) are continually monitoring these suspects using a variety of investigative techniques which I cannot go into [in] detail."

According to Sen. Grassley, in a letter fired off to Attorney General Eric Holder last night, the ATF arranged a meeting between the gun shop owner and the U.S. Attorney's office which is part of the Justice Department. At that meeting, Sen. Grassley says the U.S. Attorney's office declined to provide written terms but assured the gun dealer there were safeguards in place to prevent further distribution of the weapons being purchased from his business.

"As we now know, those assurances provide to be untrue," Grassley wrote.

PDF: Read Grassley's full letter and the emails themselves

Two months later, on June 17, 2010, the same gun shop owner again wrote ATF's Supervisor Voth again after he saw a Fox News report about firearms and the border. The gun shop owner called the report "disturbing" and stated "When you [Voth], [the Assistant U.S. Attorney], and I met on May 13th [2010], I shared my concerns with you guys that I wanted to make sure that none of the firearms that were sold per our conversation with you and various ATF agents could or would ever end up south of the border or in the hands of the bad guys... I want to help ATF with its investigation but not at the risk of agents' safety because I have some very close friends that are U.S. Border Patrol Agents in southern AZ."

This was six months before Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry was gunned down near the Arizona border. Two assault rifles that ATF had allegedly let "walk" were found at the scene.

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The gun shop owner also stated there were "one or two" occasions on which his employees witnessed and recorded with surveillance cameras an exchange of money between a suspect and another individual on the premises; but the dealer said ATF officials wanted him to proceed with this so-called "straw" purchase. Buying a weapon for personal use and then transferring it to somebody else is against the law.

In his letter, Grassley told Attorney General Holder: "In light of this new evidence, the Justice Departments' claim that the ATF never knowingly sanctioned or allowed the sale of assault weapons to straw purchasers is simply not credible."

At left, Grassley discusses the scandal and new emails on the Senate floor.

So far, Grassley and Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), who is also investigating the gunwalking scandal, say they have received little to no meaningful response to their document and information requests from ATF and the Department of Justice. Earlier this week when the Justice Department turned over selected materials to Rep. Issa's staff, sources say Grassley's staff were now allowed entry or access to the same materials.

In response to a question about the alleged gunwalking, President Obama has said a "serious mistake" may have been made, and that neither he nor Holder authorized any such operation. Holder has said the Inspector General is investigating.

All of Sharyl Attkisson's articles, blogs and videos can be found in one place at cbsnews.com/sharylattkisson

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    Sharyl Attkisson is a CBS News investigative correspondent based in Washington.

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