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Summary Article: Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) from Guns in American Society: An Encyclopedia of History, Politics, Culture, and the Law

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) is a federal law enforcement organization located within the Department of Justice. It is responsible for enforcing laws related to the illegal diversion of alcohol and tobacco products as well as the illegal use and trafficking of firearms. The ATF is also responsible for administering and enforcing both criminal and regulatory laws regarding bombs, explosives, and arson. Previously, the ATF possessed regulatory functions related to the permitting, labeling, and marketing of tobacco and alcohol. However, the Homeland Security Act of 2002 vested those responsibilities in the newly created Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB). While the TTB is located within the Department of Treasury, the former home of the ATF, the Homeland Security Act moved the ATF to the Department of Justice.

The ATF is headquartered in Washington, D.C., with field divisions located in over two dozen states and additional field offices located in several foreign countries, including Canada, Colombia, Iraq, and Mexico. The director of the ATF reports to the deputy attorney general in the Department of Justice. A chief of staff, chief counsel, and deputy director assist the director. The deputy director serves as the chief operating officer for the bureau and oversees eight separate offices that constitute the ATF. Those offices include Enforcement Programs and Services, Field Operations, Management, Professional Responsibility and Security Operations, Public and Governmental Affairs, Science and Technology, Strategic Intelligence and Information, and Training and Professional Development.

The earliest predecessors of contemporary ATF agents were the individuals charged by Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton with collecting a federal spirits tax imposed in 1791, a levy that later gave rise to the Whiskey Rebellion of 1794. The first twentieth-century precursor to the ATF was the Prohibition Unit, an organization within the Bureau of Internal Revenue of the Treasury Department devoted to the enforcement of the Eighteenth Amendment and the Volstead Prohibition Enforcement Act. Perhaps the most colorful character in the bureau's history was Eliot Ness, whose story spawned both a television series and movies. Ness and his agents, nicknamed the Untouchables, became famous during the Prohibition period for pursuing gangster Al Capone and helping to build a successful case against him on tax-evasion charges. Tobacco came within the purview of the ATF during the 1950s, when the bureau was given the responsibility to collect a federal tobacco tax.

Even before the tobacco- and alcohol-related regulatory functions of the ATF were moved to the TTB, firearms regulation and enforcement dominated the bureau's agenda, both in terms of expenditures and regulatory activity. The regulation of firearms possession (including licensing firearm dealers) and criminal investigations (including tracing guns used in criminal activity) are the bureau's major firearms-related activities. The National Firearms Act of 1934 (aimed at curtailing the easy availability of firearms for criminal activities) and the Federal Firearms Act of 1938 (prohibiting certain classes of people from owning firearms) gave the bureau its original entry into firearms regulation. Its current responsibilities with regard to firearms derive mostly from the Gun Control Act of 1968 and its subsequent amendments, including the Firearms Owners’ Protection Act of 1986 and the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act of 1998.

As part of its responsibilities with regard to firearms, the ATF is tasked with issuing federal licenses for gun manufacturers and dealers. The ATF's National Licensing Center is based in Atlanta and handles these licensing responsibilities. Dealers are required to maintain a permanent place of business from which to conduct their firearms business and are barred from selling to prohibited classes of individuals, including felons, juveniles, and those adjudicated to be mentally incompetent. Individuals who collect guns for personal collections and make sales only occasionally as part of their hobby are also required to obtain a federal collector's license.

To ensure compliance with licensing requirements, the ATF conducts occasional inspections of existing licensees but has historically been plagued with insufficient personnel for effective monitoring. The Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act requires dealers to obtain a criminal background check on a prospective buyer prior to making a sale. They do so through the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS), which is operated by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). Though the ATF does not operate the NICS, it is responsible for ensuring dealer compliance with this provision of the Brady Bill, including the background check requirement.

In addition, the ATF operates the National Tracing Center (NTC) located in Martins-burg, West Virginia. The NTC is responsible for tracing the ownership of guns recovered from criminal investigations. The NTC collects information on firearms sales, stolen guns, and chains of possession (from manufacturer to purchaser) to aid local, state, and national law enforcement agencies. Such information is part of a computerized database used to identify firearms-trafficking corridors and black markets for guns. In fiscal year 2009, the NTC processed more than 340,000 requests from domestic and international law enforcement agencies to trace guns related to crimes. The NTC also serves as the repository for firearms transaction records from federal firearm licensees that discontinue business, maintains records of multiple sales (i.e., the sale of two or more handguns to the same person within five consecutive business days), and provides assistance in identifying firearms with altered or destroyed serial numbers.

The ATF's current responsibilities with regard to arson and explosives derive from the Gun Control Act of 1968, which gave the ATF federal jurisdiction for destructive devices, and the Organized Crime Control Act of 1970, which established regulations regarding the manufacture, storage, and sale of explosives. As part of its role in the enforcement of laws regarding explosives and arson, the ATF administers the Federal Explosives License (FEL) Program. There are approximately 11,000 licensees working with commercial explosives, including fireworks and those used in the mining industry. The ATF also maintains a cadre of explosives specialists, fire investigators, and criminal profilers who engage in explosives investigations, assist with bomb disposal, and provide technical assistance to the commercial explosives industry. In conjunction with the U.S. Bomb Data Center, the ATF maintains the Bomb Arson Tracking System, which provides arson and explosives information to aid police officers, bomb technicians, and fire investigators at the state and local level.

No longer playing a role in the regulation of the alcohol or tobacco industries, the ATF's focus in this area is now strictly on the reduction of alcohol smuggling and contraband tobacco trafficking. The objective is to reduce or remove sources of revenue for criminal and terrorist organizations. The ATF directs more of its efforts at tobacco trafficking than at alcohol smuggling because tobacco trafficking is more common. Tobacco has become increasingly more attractive to trafficking organizations that previously focused only on weapons and drugs, as some states have dramatically increased their tobacco taxes. Tobacco diversion is estimated to cost federal, state, and local governments upward of $5 billion in unpaid excise taxes each year.

The relationship between the firearms industry and the ATF is volatile and exacerbated by the intense opposition of anti-gun control groups, such as the National Rifle Association (NRA). The ATF has been the target of a number of intense attacks and efforts to dismantle it. For example, when the bureau proposed to computerize records to facilitate meeting its regulatory obligations in the 1980s, Congress prohibited the ATF from spending any of its funds to do so and went so far as to cut the funds the ATF had estimated computerization would have cost from the bureau's budget. During his 1980 presidential campaign, Ronald Reagan included promises to dissolve the bureau, spurred in part by NRA lobbying and analyses conducted by conservative groups suggesting that major budget savings would accrue from folding the ATF into other agencies.

Most recently, the ATF has attracted intense scrutiny and the ire of lawmakers and gun rights groups over its Operation Fast and Furious—a sting operation intended to trace weapons moving illegally across the border between the United States and Mexico and result in the prosecution of illegal drug sellers. Guns sold to suspects in the sting operation were later traced to the scenes of death for two U.S. border agents. When U.S. attorney general Eric Holder was asked about details of the operation, he claimed not to know many of them; almost immediately, the NRA began a petition to have him fired (National Rifle Association 2011). Other fallout included the call for ATF acting director Kenneth Melson's resignation, as well as calls for the dissolving of the bureau itself (Gerstein 2011; Stolberg 2011)—which has been the aim of many in the gun rights camp for more than two decades.

See also: Background Checks; Black Market for Firearms; Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act (Brady Bill); Branch Davidians; Federal Firearms Act of 1938 (Public Law No. 75-785); Firearm Dealers; Gun Control Act of 1968; Gun Registration; Gun Shows; National Firearms Act of 1934; National Instant Criminal Background Check System; National Rifle Association (NRA); National Tracing Center (NTC); Ruby Ridge; Youth Crime Gun Interdiction Initiative

Further Reading
  • Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. An Introduction to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms and the Regulated Industries. U.S. Department of the Treasury Washington, DC, 1998.
  • Gerstein, Josh. “Could Controversy Kill the ATF?” Politico.com, July 8, 2011. http://www.politico.com/news/stories/0711/58532.html (accessed July 20, 2011).
  • Martinek, Wendy L.; Kenneth J. Meier; Lael R. Keiser.Jackboots or Lace Panties? The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms.” In The Changing Politics of Gun Control, edited by John M. Bruce; Clyde Wilcox, 17-44. Row-man & Littlefield Lanham MD, 1998.
  • Moore, James. Very Special Agents: The Inside Story of America's Most Controversial Law Enforcement Agency—the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms. Pocket Books New York, 1997.
  • National Rifle Association. “National Campaign to Fire Attorney General Eric Holder.” July 2011. https://www.nra.org/fireholder/ (accessed July 20, 2011).
  • Spitzer, Robert J. The Politics of Gun Control. 5th ed. Paradigm Publishers Boulder CO, 2012.
  • Stolberg, Sheryl Gay.Firearms Bureau Finds Itself in a Rough Patch.” New York Times, July 4, 2011. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/07/05/us/politics/05guns.html (accessed July 6, 2011).
  • Vizzard, William J. In the Cross Fire: A Political History of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. Lynne Rienner Boulder CO, 1997.
  • Wendy L. Martinek
    Copyright 2012 by ABC-CLIO LLC

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