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Another day, another debacle for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.

This time, the scene is not Waco, Texas, or Ruby Ridge, Idaho, but Taft, California — another hotbed of “anti-government activity.”

According to the federal government’s own account, the BATF began an investigation into illegal firearms sales by people espousing anti-government rhetoric three or four years ago with an undercover agent allegedly making an illegal purchase of a .22-caliber pistol.

It ended last week with one of the three targets of the federal government probe dead in a highly unusual — and, yes, improbable — incident.

The official story goes something like this: Two BATF agents, a Kern County sheriff’s deputy and Sgt. Ed Whiting of the Taft Police Department attempted to take into custody on illegal firearms trafficking charges, Darryl Howell, a 45-year-old grandfather and owner of a surplus store that sold, among other things, guns and ammunition.

A struggle between the BATF agents and Howell ensued. The cops say he broke away from them, lunged for a .45-caliber handgun, put it into his mouth and fired a single shot. Whiting, the story goes, had become temporarily distracted during the scuffle. When he heard the single shot, he instinctively aimed his gun at Howell and fired three more shots into his already, presumably, lifeless body.

Now, if you believe that, I have an intercontinental ballistic missile I’d like to sell you.

I’m not a cop, and I’ve never played one on TV. But I have reported on enough crime stories in my day to know when one stinks to high heaven. And this one smells like a cattle ranch on a windless, summer day in California’s Central Valley.

Let me see if I have this straight. Four cops, one “suspect.” This wanted outlaw — so dangerous he’s been under scrutiny of federal law enforcement for nearly four years — is confronted not in his home, not on his lunch break, not on his way to work or after he locks up, but during the workday in a store loaded with firearms. Even though he’s not accused of being on PCP or any other drugs, he cannot be physically subdued by four officers. They are unable to persuade him to come along peacefully or handcuff him involuntarily. Instead, he is permitted by these highly trained law enforcement professionals to grab one of his guns. But they don’t shoot him right away. Oh no. They allow him to pick up the handgun, bring it all the way up to his mouth and pull the trigger. Only then, we are told, does one of the officers, who wasn’t paying attention, pump the desperado full of lead.

Do these BATF clowns ever learn? Either these guys are Washington’s answer to the Keystone Kops, or we have on the loose a cold, calculating, professional, Gestapo-like killing machine designed to root out dissidents exercising their Second Amendment rights and blow them away without the messiness of trials and due process.

How many times does America need to see such tragedies before it wakes up and disarms these dangerous, out-of-control, gun-slinging hitmen? The inmates are running the asylum, folks. Beam me up.

There is no allegation made by any of these cowboys that Howell or any others charged in a series of raids in the town of Taft last week had provided weapons to criminals or represented a threat to law-abiding citizens anywhere. In fact, I personally would have felt a lot safer in Taft last week, before Mr. Howell was “suicided” than I would today. I think most Americans would.

Let’s suspend our own cognitive skills and good judgment for a moment and pretend the cops’ story is 100 percent accurate. Was the four-year investigation worth it? Was it a prudent investment of taxpayer dollars? Why aren’t these law-enforcement heroes out investigating real crimes of violence against innocent victims, instead of conducting secretive sting operations designed to entrap people into violating inherently unconstitutional laws?

But, you know what? Such talk can get you in trouble these days. One of the BATF agents responsible for this tragedy said one of Howell’s friends had (gasp!) complained about a ban on “assault weapons” and the actions of President Clinton, Attorney General Janet Reno and U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein.

At the risk of inviting a similar assault on my home or business, let me pick up that cry: These are, indeed, some of the people who represent a real threat to our lives and liberty in America today.

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