You know, here at TTAG, we treat the ATF with the same reverence and respect that we used to treat GM back in the early days of TTAC. Which is to say “with none,” or to be a little more prosaic, we have all the enthusiasm for the behavior of the ATF that we’d have for the stuff we scrape off the bottom of our shoes. Now statistically speaking, there must be some ATF agents who are competent, conscientious, and care about their country more than their jobs. (If you’re in that group, please step forward. We wanna hear from you.) But our coverage of the ATF got me to wondering, things like “Where did these guys come from,” “Who do they report to,” and “Why do we need them.” So I went looking for answers. And what I found, as they say, explains a lot . . .

The ATF began way back in the day (in 1896) as the Revenue Laboratory of the Treasury Department’s Bureau of Internal Revenue. By 1920, they were focused on collections for revenues from the taxation of alcoholic beverages, and became known as the Bureau of Prohibition when the Eighteenth Amendment (Prohibition) went into effect in 1919, and was made an independent agency within the Treasury Department in 1930. For a brief time in 1933, they went from Treasury to Justice, and became a division of the FBI.

In December of 1933, when the Volstead Act was repealed, they were sent from Justice back to Treasury, to become the Alcohol Tax Unit of the Burrea of Internal Revenue. Remember the Untouchables and Eliot Ness? They were a part of the Prohibition Bureau and subsequently made the switch to the ATU. Their beat was limited to illegal liquor, but they added enforcement of Federal Firearms Laws to their responsibilities in 1942.

Fast-forward to the 1950s. The Bureau of Internal Revenue was reincarnated as the Internal Revenue Service (as if that name was going to make it any more pleasant to deal with), and the ATU added enforcement of tobacco tax laws to their repertoire. Along with the new responsibilities came a new name. Exit “Alcohol Tax Unit.” Enter Alcohol and Tobacco Tax Division (ATTD).

In 1968, Congress passed the Gun Control Act, and the ATTD became known as the Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms Division of the IRS. In 1970, Congress enacted the Explosives Control Act and gave the Secretary of the Treasury responsibilities for regulation, which they delegated to what was now known as the ATF.

On July 1, 1972, the ATF became a separate division within the Treasury Department, and all the former responsibilities of the IRS division were transfered to the “new” Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. The ATF focus was redirected toward federal firearms law violations, violent crime, and explosives laws, while retaining their responsibilities to run herd on alcohol and tobacco tax issues.

That all changed after 9/11. The Homeland Security Act of 2002 created the Department of Homeland Security, transferring the reporting structure of the ATF from Treasury to the Department of Justice. They added “and Explosives” to the ATF monicker, but still referred to the agency as the ATF (although we hear BATF and BATFE on occasion, as well). Interestingly, in 2003, the responsibilities for alcohol and tobacco tax collections and issues revolving around alcohol production (i.e.: illegal stills) was transfered to the brand, spankin’ new Tobacco Tax and Trad Bureau, a unit of the Treasury Department.

So in effect, the ATF no longer has much to do with Alcohol. Or Tobacco. (They do handle cigarette smuggling cases, but it’s evidently kind of a sideline thing with them.) But brother, they are all over that firearms and explosives thing, lemme tell you.

Along the way, the ATF has been on the bleeding edge of a number of high-profile cases that have made them the poster children for those who throw terms around like “jack-booted thugs,” to wit:

The Ruby Ridge Seige (1990) From Wikipedia.org:

Randy Weaver was pressured by Kenneth Fadeley, an ATF informant, to shorten the barrels on two shotguns and sell these to Fadeley. Weaver maintained the barrels were a legal length, but after Fadeley took possession, the shotguns were later found to be 1/4″ shorter than allowed by federal law, requiring registration as a short-barreled shotgun and payment of a $200 tax. ATF filed firearms charges against Weaver, but offered to drop the charges if he would become an informant. Weaver refused. At his later trial, these charges were determined to be entrapment and Weaver was acquitted. However, Weaver missed a February 20, 1991 court date because U.S. Probation Officer Richins mistakenly told Weaver that the trial date was March 20, and the US Marshals Service(USMS) was charged with bringing Weaver in. Weaver remained with his family in their mountain top cabin. On August 21, 1992 a USMS surveillance team was involved in a shootout that left US Marshal Bill Degan, Samuel Weaver (14), and his pet dog dead. FBI HRT laid siege to the cabin; the next day, Lon Horiuchi, an FBI HRT sniper, opened fire on the Weavers, killing Weaver’s wife, Vicki, and wounding Weaver and a family friend. A subsequent Department of Justice review and a Congressional hearing raised several questions about the actions of ATF, USMS, USAO and FBI HRT and the mishandling of intelligence at the USMS and FBI headquarters.

The Branch Davidian Seige (1993)

On February 28, 1993 when ATF agents, accompanied by the press, conducted a raid to execute a federal search warrant on the [Branch Davidian] sect’s compound, known as Mt. Carmel. The Branch Davidians were alerted to the upcoming warrant execution but ATF raid leaders pressed on, despite knowing the advantage of surprise was lost. The resulting exchange of gunfire left six Davidians and four ATF agents dead. FBI HRT later took over the scene and a 51-day stand-off ensued, ending on April 19, 1993, after the complex caught fire, possibly as a result of the HRT’s introduction of flammable tear gas into the compound. The followup investigation revealed the bodies of seventy-six people including twenty children inside the compound. Although a grand jury found that the deaths were suicides or otherwise caused by people inside the building, accusations of excessive force by law enforcement persist.[34] Shortly after the raid, the bureau’s director, Stephen E. Higgins, retired early from his position.

The Oklahoma City Bombing (1995)
While the ATF had nothing to do with the bombing itself, the Murrah building was targeted in Oklahoma City, because it housed the local offices of the ATF and FBI. From Wikipedia:

Timothy McVeigh cited these incidents as his motivation for the Oklahoma City Bombing, which took place on April 19, 1995, exactly two years after the end of the Waco Siege.

In the new Millenium, ATF agents have been much in the news for all the wrong kinds of reasons, from sex crimes and second-degree murder charges, to drug-dealing and distribution. Which brings us, full circle, back to Project Gunwalker.

A two-year-old with their first box of crayons could connect the dots here. Macro view or micro, the ATF is out of control. Worse, it’s an agency without a well-defined, focused mission. And what mission they do have is obviously one that has an awful lot of bleed-over with other agencies, notably the FBI.

You see, that’s the problem with bureaucracies. They are run by and populated by people. People with agendas. People with careers and goals. People that have a habit of putting their own desires, wants and needs ahead of what is good for the country. Sadly, any time you get an agency who’s mission statement changes, logic would dictate that it’s time for a complete review, with an eye to if the agency is even needed.

But bureaucracies don’t work that way. Any organization that is funded has a vested interest in continuing to exist and to grow. Now you’d think “why didn’t they fix this when they created the Department of Homeland Security back after 9/11?” Indeed. But you see, the mission there was to Do Something Important. And unfortunately, the Bush Administration, instead of killing the ATF as an agency, allowed themselves to listen to the siren song of the ATF bigwigs, thus allowing the ATF not just to survive, but to thrive.

I’ve heard it said that the decision that President Clinton made in Somalia to pull out our troops (popularly known today as the fallout from the “Blackhawk Down” incident) was the single event that emboldened Osama Bin Laden to attack us on 9/11. Osama has said exactly that, so it’s hard to argue with the idea.

Unlike some Conservatives, I won’t lay the blame for 9/11 at Clinton’s feet. He’s not a mind-reader. He had no idea the repercussions his actions would trigger. I’m sure it looked to him like the right move at the time. (I would have disagreed with that assessment, but I’m of a mind that you never run away from a fight.)

However, if you’re going to bring up Clinton’s name in the 9/11 discussion, you should also bring up Bush’s name when you discuss Gunwalker. It may not have happened on his watch. But the fact that the ATF still exists today can be laid at the feet of the Bush Administration. Given the ATFs clear-cut “culture of corruption,” allowing it to survive, post 9/11, most certainly set the colossal screw-up that is Project Gunwalker into motion, just as Clinton’s withdrawl spawned the attack on 9/11. Now it’s Obama’s turn.

Nice goin’, guys.

10 Responses to The Who, What, When, Why, and How of the ATF

  1. What would you expect to happen if the budget axe were to fall on ATF?

    Who would then police the 20,000 firearms laws?
    FBI? Or some other agency?

    Those ATF employees are going somewhere in the government, they’re not going to the private sector. Who would hire a former ATF agent unless you are running a mafia family…

    Bold leadership comes from bold public input. There’s a raft of government bureaucracies that need to be expired and defunded but I’m not convinced that ATF being one of them is a good thing for gun owners.

    • We need the ATF? For what, exactly? And in answer to your question “If there was no one there to enforce a law, doesn’t it really exist?”, no, it doesn’t. Not in any practical sense. Which is the only sense that matters. At least initially. (Check: “blue laws.”)

      • Brad is right, killing the agency doesn’t kill the laws. Only Congress can do that and thus far they have not expressed a willingness to –reduce– any federal laws by elimination.

        Remember, ATF also controls FFL’s, title 2 firearm transfers, including the 5320.20 interstate transport of title 2 firearms & regulated items, so someone has to maintain that infrastructure for us to legally buy new guns, not to mention the manufacturers.

    • You’ve kind of answered your own question there. Let’s say someone does take a bold and decisive step and kills the ATF. I would imagine that the remaining agencies will argue that they will need some or all of the ATF funds in order to take up the slack. The former ATF employees will get hired by the FBI, et cetera. The more interesting question is would their culture of wretched excess and “ends justify the means” attitudes infect the FBI and other LEOs, or would they have to clean up their acts in order to get hired. I don’t know the answer to that one.

      • The question was somewhat rhetorical but important. As I mention above, any lapse in the approval of licenses, title 2 firearms transactions, and manufacturing oversight IS going to impact gun owners negatively.

        As to what would happen to the employees:
        As G. Gordon Liddy has said many times on this very topic – “What do you get when you add dirty water to clean water? More dirty water.”

        I think one good way to mitigate the “rogue operator” overpopulation in ATF is to remove their sworn LEO agents. – In other words, no more guns for ATF. This would make them have to go to another “Daddy” agency to get armed support. Other agencies aren’t going to be so willing to send armed agents to a sting involving an FFL and middle initials instead of full middle names on 4473’s.

        Let them keep the jackboots, but not the thugs.

  2. Unmentioned is the fact that before June 26, 2008, firearms fell into the same category as alcohol and tobacco: instruments of social evil not tolerated in progressive society and utterly lacking any fundamental legal shelter.

    All Americans now enjoy a Constitutionally-protected right to armed self-defense. Yet the BATFE still exists and operates as though nothing has changed. We do not tolerate government agencies like China’s General Administration of Press and Publication – so why do so many still accept the legitimacy of the BATFE?

  3. Bureaucracies are their own justification. The fact that an administration may be Republican or Democratic is for the most part happenstance, although some are worse than others. Bureaucracies necessarily expand over time as their quasi-political reach understands few limits. For them, expansion is survival. The individual actors are typically a mish-mash of affirmative action hires with more loyalty to their pensions than the citizens they ostensibly serve, and the citizen is typically viewed as suspect–at best, a hindrance to them as they work to complete their “appointed” (not constitutional) task. It is the same whether we are talking BATF, EPA, DOT, or any of them, actually.

  4. Good points here. When there is an excess of local police now giving ‘speeding’ tickets in large numbers for going 45 in a 40, who could do the ‘enforcing’ of the ‘gun laws’ without the a.t.f.e. around?

  5. Can’t or won’t do anything about the agency. Can’t or won’t prosecute individual agents or their supervisor for violations and outright crimes, that would land any other officer in a federal prison.

    WHY?

    Because fedgov needs them to be available and wants them to do the things that they are doing. Simple as that. They must take care of the “fingers and hands” that do their required work and impose their will and desires. They will never do anything to stop this because they themselves, believe in it and to do so would degrade their power, which they have come to love and believe is mandated by God. Those that believe in God. Most of them appear to simply need a good job with a paycheck and will do whatever they are told to do.

    This ends badly at some point.

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