As part of President Obama’s gun control plan he has included a request to have his nominee for director of the ATF be confirmed. Prior to 2006 the director of the ATF did not require Senate confirmation. Since 2006 there has not been a permanent director of the ATF.

The Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms has had a problematic existence. In 1951, as part of tax increase legislation, the name of the Bureau of Internal Revenue was changed to The Internal Revenue Service. The IRS was responsible for collecting the excise and license fees that the liquor and tobacco industries paid to the federal government. The Alcohol and Tobacco Tax Division of the Treasury Department was responsible for monitoring illicit production, distribution, and revenue fraud
In 1968, in response to the violent assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Congress passed the Gun Control Act. Firearms became part of the portfolio of the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax Division. In 1972 it become an Independent agency, The Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms, and was responsible for revenue collection and preventing illicit distribution and fraud. Once firearms become part of the BATF the agency gained a perpetual enemy in the guise of the NRA.

It is this enmity that has prevented a permanent director from being confirmed. During the Regan administration the NRA nearly succeeded in disbanding the agency. The BATF has remained a weak agency.

The most well knows incident that many feel revealed the incompetence of the Agency is the massacre in Waco in 1993. Despite the fact that many people believed that the government action at Branch Davidian represented an overreach of federal power, a subsequent investigation determined that the BATF had not used excessive force.

In January 2003 the BATF split into two bureaus. The duties of tax collection and regulation of production, labeling, marketing and advertising of alcoholic products went to the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) while the law enforcement aspect of the ATF became the responsibility of the Justice Department. These changes were part of the Homeland Security Act of 2002 and were a consequence of the events of September 11, 2001.

One thought on “The ATF”

  1. The BATFE has been involved in controversy since the 1980s, when a series of complaints against the Bureau revealed that the BATFE was creating/generating cases out of thin air against law abiding US citizens. The US Senate, through hearings, uncovered enforcement tactics used by the BATFE that it called “constitutionally, legally, and practically reprehensible.” The Senate subcommittee found that the BATFE, as a matter of practice, dedicated its efforts to arrests based on malum prohibitum charges against firearms collectors instead of criminals.

    Other than the Waco fiasco mentioned above, the Ruby Ridge incident in the early 1990s is the most well known controversy involving the BATFE. Undercover agents purchased two shotguns from Randy Weaver. Although he maintained that the shotguns were of legal length, the guns were later (in BATFE possession) found to be shortened below the legal limit. The Bureau then fed false information to other federal and state law enforcement agencies about Weaver, including nonexistant charges of felonies, bank robbery, drug possession, possession of explosives and illegal firearms. Weaver was later acquitted of all charges. However, a US Probation officer notified Weaver of the wrong court date, and this led to a standoff between the Weaver family and the FBI and US Marshalls. During the siege, an FBI sniper killed Weaver’s wife. The mishandling of the Weaver case was investigated by a Congressional hearing.

    During the early-mid 2000s, the BATFE was investigated by the Department of Justice’s Office of the Inspector General and found that 76 firearms and 418 computers were lost before audits.

    Congress again investigated the BATFE after an August 2005 program where Bureau agents, along with Virginia State and local police, detained without cause many (particularly female) gun show attendees. Witnesses testified of harassment, intimidation and verbal abuse.

    It should be noted that more recently, the BATFE was embroiled in the Fast and Furious scandal, which involved gunrunning to Mexican drug cartels. ATF agents orchestrated the selling of firearms to straw purchasers (buyers purchasing on behalf of someone who can’t legally make the purchase) and then allowed the guns to be walked across the US-Mexico border. Thousands of firearms were lost to criminals in this program, which came to light after a US Border Patrol agent was killed and a Fast and Furious gun was found to be the murder weapon.

    Whistleblowers and internal documents point to the Obama administration as having full knowledge of the program’s failures. An investigative committee found US Attorney General Eric Holder to be in contempt of Congress when he failed to produce documentation of the program after more than a year. The administration’s internal investigation did not place blame on any specific individual. The administration has leveraged the scandal to implement a system of required reporting for purchases of more than two rifles in southwestern border states. This program is being challenged as unconstitutional. The BATFE has since been accused of retaliation against whistleblowers after firing many of those involved in revealing the depth of the scandal.

    Primarily, the problematic existence of the BATFE has been the questionable, if not outright illegal techniques it has used.

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