The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (and Really Big Fires) began life in 1920 as the Bureau of Prohibition. The Treasury Department formed the unit within the Bureau of Internal Revenue (later IRS) to enforce the unenforceable: Prohibition. A decade later, Uncle Sam rewarded the unit’s highly publicized, Man of LaMancha-like efforts by transferring the unit to the Federal Bureau of Investigation. For about five minutes. When Prohibition was repealed, the FBI punted the lame duck agency back to the Bureau of Internal Revenue, where it became the Alcohol Tax Unit (ATU). And there it sat, quiet as a mouse, hassling no one but moonshiners. And then, of course, all hell broke loose . . .
It started in the 50’s, when the feds gave the ATU responsibility for enforcing tobacco taxes. Uncle Sam rechristened the ATU the ATTD (Alcohol and Tobacco Tax Division). The Agency’s political juice doubled. While the current agency’s lame firearms enforcement efforts gets all the ink, their anti-black market booze and ciggies work is worth billions. Quick digression . . .
The Founding Father’s sons used tobacco taxes to pay off the fledgling nation’s Revolutionary War debt. According to ustreas.gov, by 1868, the U.S. government derived most of its revenue from liquor and tobacco taxes. According to nocigtax.com, the feds collected $8.5 billion in federal excise taxes on tobacco in 2009. In 2007, federal alcohol tax raised $9.3 billion.
So, in the I-Like-Ike-era, the ATTD suddenly became a way bigger deal, escaping oblivion. During the politically chaotic year of 1968, the feds added another feather to the ATTD’s cap, charging them with enforcing the Gun Control Act. And so the agency became the Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms Division of the IRS. The ATF was born.
And didn’t cause much trouble for anyone, really. For forty-eight years, the ATTD had been chundling along quite nicely, disturbing no one but the accounting departments of alcohol and tobacco companies and the aforementioned moonshiners and black market tobacco sellers. And then, suddenly, the Gun Control Act changed the unit from a bunch of pencil pushers with shotguns into a fully-fledged federal agency—with a major hard-on for “evil” gun dealers and gun control.
Blame Rex Darwin Davis. The WWII vet was the bureaucrat responsible for hiving off the ATF from the Treasury Department. Readers wearing Glenn Beck-branded tin foil hats note: the ATF’s first head studied for a year at the ultra-mega-Progressive Woodrow Wilson School. In the middle of the 60’s, no less. The rest of us should clock the fact that Davis was a “strong supporter” of the nascent Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. Here’s the smoking gun, from The Brady Campaign’s annual report, 2006:
Rex Davis served as the Director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) from 1966-1978 and is impressed with the work of the Brady Center’s Gun Industry Watch. Davis said, “Gun Industry Watch is shining a bright light on the deadly dealers who poison our communities with illegal guns and the gun lobby’s work in the halls of Congress to protect them. As the former Director of ATF, I know the truth needs to be told and Gun Industry Watch is telling it,” said Davis.
The truth about the ATF: the agency was born with a profoundly anti-Second Amendment agenda. Andrew Traver recent nomination to head the currently headless ATF continues the tradition. The ATF’s Chicago Bureau chief is an avowed supporter of a ban on so-called assault rifles [see: YouTube video above] who’s hopped into bed with the pro-gun control Joyce Foundation. Nuff said?
Unfortunately not. The ATF’s outgoing acting head Ken Mellor has fired a shot across the bow of American gun rights: an emergency order requiring some 8500 gun dealers in Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California to report sales of two or more semi-automatic rifles (within a five-day period) to the ATF. The Agency will examine these sales—including the who, what, when and where—and launch criminal investigations when and where they see fit.
Mellor justifies this extraordinary launch of a de facto federal gun registry as a “temporary measure” to combat the flow of American guns over the southern border to Mexican drug cartels. An activity whose exact scope is unknown, with entirely questionable importance relative to Mexican gun violence—given that these well-funded criminal organizations are also using weapons (including grenades) “requisitioned” from military sources.
The National Rifle Association opposes the ATF’s move, asserting that a gun registration scheme simply won’t work. True dat. If so-called straw purchasers know that the ATF is monitoring multiple rifle sales—and how could they not?—they won’t make them. Bizarrely enough, the ATF can then claim that the lack of successful criminal cases involving U.S. to Mexico gun-running indicates the initiative’s success. And argue for its continuation.
Or expansion, into the mandatory registration of all sales of .50 caliber rifles, which pose an enormous threat to agents combatting the drug cartels (or not). This is no paranoid fantasy; Mellor has already expanded the registration scheme. Originally, it was forwarded as a six-month measure. Yesterday, without any prior notice, Mellor casually mentioned that it’s now a one-year program. That was easy.
What’s not so easy: making the case that the ATF has run seriously amok. That this measure, aimed at combatting crime, puts the federal government on a slippery slope towards a comprensive national firearms registration scheme. And that a comprehensive national firearms registration scheme is a bad, bad thing.
Before addressing the measure’s dangers, it’s important to ask WTF. If it won’t work, why is the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosive seeking to create this controversial database?
As I mentioned above, the ATF is deeply and culturally opposed to unabridged Second Amendment freedoms. They believe that fighting crime with Elliott Ness-like zeal is more important than the average citizen’s right to bear arms. The ends justify the means. Any means. Especially those means that defend and extend the Agency’s power.
Unlike most federal agencies, the ATF is on extremely thin ice. As you might expect for an agency that shouldn’t exist in the first place, whose work overlaps with an entire alphabet soup of other federal agencies (FBI, DOJ, CPB, DHS, etc.), whose numbers haven’t changed in decades. In short, the ATF is desperate for public recognition. Relevance. Funding. Survival.
The Mexican gun running problem may be statistically irrelevant to the actual conflict, but it’s the biggest thing to happen to the ATF since Capone. They recently received an additional $83 million to set up new field offices down near the border. Just like that. No questions asked. Until the Inspector General’s office had a look at the ATF’s firearms interdiction efforts and declared the agency completely, thoroughly, startlingly (even for the federal government) incompetent.
That REALLY lit a fire under the ATF’s collective ass. Mellor couldn’t retire on that note, with his peers sniggering at his troops. And so he directed his Best and Brightest to put their heads together and came up with this, well, abortion. As a sign of their own confidence in the registration scheme, the ATF shortened the normal public consultation period from 90 days to 21 (three weeks). Over Christmas.
Bottom line: does the ATF really want a national gun registry? Why wouldn’t they? Any such registry would guarantee their existence, even more firmly establishing them as the “go-to” guys for law enforcement information on guns. It would also allow the ATF to collect federal taxes on firearms–a bonanza that would add to their rep and relevance as Uncle Sam’s ballistic revenooer. And it would give them additional power over gun dealers, whom they don’t like.
The ATF is prohibited by law from establishing a national gun registry. They’ve been sailing awfully close to the wind on that one for decades. As reported here, the ATF maintains a database of firearms transaction from gun dealers who’ve closed their doors or left the business. They maintain a database of all guns submitted for trace by law enforcement—both here and abroad. They’re now encouraging dealers to enter their records electronically. Meanwhile, they’re taking digital pictures of dealers’ “bound book,” which records all customer purchase information.
The ATF says they adhere to the prohibition on national gun registration by not searching any of their databases without just cause. How do we know that’s true? The Agency has trotted industry types into their Virginia facility to demonstrate their pure-as-the-driven-snow database procedures, but I’d like to see an independent audit of those practices. In any case, this stricture is a weak protection that can be “rectified” with a single legislative amendment.
More to the point, the ATF is now in the business of computerizing millions of firearms purchase records. Assimilating the new information from multiple gun sales near our southern border into their eTrace database, or any of the ATF’s other databases, will not be a problem. Far from it. If the multiple rifle registration scheme expands, the ATF can lobby Congress for additional funding for firearms record-keeping in general. Think of it as a “dry run” for more ambitious registration scheme. The ATF does.
Timing is. Everything. At the risk of once again evoking the Glenn Beck specter, the ATF’s decision to launch this registration scheme quickly and now—despite the fact that the Mexican drug war has been raging for years—reflects the administration’s belief that you should never waste a good crisis.
When Mexican President Calderon laid the blame for the drug cartel’s armory at the doorstep of Bob’s Guns, and the media didn’t laugh, and the President echoed the sentiment, and the coverage of the drug wars escalated, the ATF considered it a green light. And they bloody well floored it, knowing that an open road is about to close.
Andrew Traver’s nomination is headed for a very public drubbing, or a hugely controversial recess appointment (craven as that is). The incoming Congress is suffused with gun rights’ proponents. To get the initiative into effect, the ATF needed to end-run the legislative process and make their move now. And so they have. So far, the mainstream media (MSM) and our own Dan Baum have bought the need for a registration scheme hook, line and sinker.
Fortunately, we live in a different world than the one the ATU enjoyed during it heyday, when the MSM was all there was, and it was Uncle Sam’s lapdog. The Internet gun rights grapevine is buzzing. Second Amendment supporters are mobilizing. The ATF will face a groundswell of opposition. As well they should. The ATF’s registration scheme poses a clear and present danger to American’s Second Amendment rights. Simply put, registration is the first step to confiscation.
wallsofthecity.net makes the case persuasively. Click over to see how gun registration led to gun confiscation in Canada, Australia, Britain, California and New York City. (Historically, Germany’s gun registration scheme preceded the Holocaust.) Truth be told, just because you’re a paranoid “gunloon” doesn’t mean that the government isn’t out to restrict, abridge or remove your gun rights. Potentially. Incrementally. Eventually. The earlier and more aggressively you defend those rights, the smaller the chance that they can be diminished or lost.
The creation of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives was a huge mistake. The agency doesn’t do anything that couldn’t be done by the FBI or any of the other local, state and/or federal law enforcement organizations. Allowing the ATF to end-run the democratic process, creating gun control without a unequivocal legislative mandate, compounds the folly exponentially.
There’s no getting around it: when it comes to crime fighting efficiency, effectiveness or importance, the ATF is a joke. Suddenly, it’s not so funny.