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Definition: ATF from Merriam-Webster's Collegiate(R) Dictionary

[Bureau of] Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives

Summary Article: Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives
From The Social History of Crime and Punishment in America

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) is a federal law enforcement agency within the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) charged with administering and enforcing federal laws related to the manufacture, importation, and distribution of firearms and explosives. It is also responsible for investigating arson cases with a federal nexus, as well as criminal violations of federal laws governing the manufacture, importation, and distribution of alcohol and tobacco.

Evolution of the ATF

ATF's roots as a law enforcement agency can be traced back to July 1862, when Congress created an Office of Internal Revenue (OIR) within the Treasury Department charged with the collection of taxes on distilled spirits and tobacco products. The following year, Congress authorized the OIR commissioner to hire detectives to facilitate the apprehension, punishment, and deterrence of tax evaders. The role of these detectives known as "revenoors" expanded significantly in 1919 when the Eighteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, along with the Volstead Act, established Prohibition. These laws made illegal the manufacture, sale, transportation, and exportation of intoxicating liquors from or to the United States or its territories. In order to enforce the new statutes, a Prohibition Unit was established within the Bureau of Internal Revenue. Revenue agents assigned to the unit were tasked with investigating violations of internal revenue law, including the illicit manufacture of liquors. On April 1, 1927, the unit was elevated to bureau status and was transferred from the Department of the Treasury to the DOJ. The unit had jurisdiction over alcohol, as well as federal narcotics statutes, until 1930, when the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, a forerunner of the Drug Enforcement Administration, was established.

The Bureau of Prohibition was returned to the Treasury in 1934 at the end of Prohibition and was renamed the Alcohol Tax Unit (ATU). In addition to collecting liquor excise taxes, agents assigned to the unit were tasked with stopping the illegal manufacturing of untaxed liquor. ATU's list of responsibilities was later expanded to include the collection of firearm manufacturing and transfer excise taxes following the enactment of the National Firearms Act (NFA). In 1952, the ATU's title was changed to the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax Division (ATTD) and its list of responsibilities was again expanded to include the enforcement of tobacco tax laws.

In 1968, Congress passed two major pieces of legislation that significantly expanded the role of the ATTD. These were the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act and the Gun Control Act. The laws placed new restrictions on the ownership, manufacture, and transfer of firearms and implemented strict government regulation and control over bombs and other explosives. The ATTD was renamed the Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms Division (ATFD) and was given jurisdiction to enforce the firearm and explosives provisions of the new laws. In 1970, it was given the added responsibility of enforcing the Organized Crime Control Act and the Explosives Control Act. These laws provided for close regulation of the explosives industry and designated certain arsons and bombings as federal crimes.

Modern ATF

On July 1, 1972, the ATFD was given full bureau status and renamed the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF). The new agency was tasked with an eclectic array of enforcement and regulatory responsibilities, including the collection of federal taxes on alcohol and tobacco and federal regulation of firearms and explosives. Subsequent laws expanded ATF's jurisdiction. The 1976 Arms Export Control Act focused the bureau's attention on international gun smuggling. The 1982 Anti-Arson Act granted ATF authority to investigate the destruction of property by fire as well as by explosives. Regulatory measures such as the 1978 Contraband Cigarette Act enhanced the agency's ability to collect mandated government taxes from cigarette and liquor manufacturers.

Two incidents in the early 1990s focused national attention on the ATF and led to widespread condemnation of the newly formed agency. The first incident was the standoff at Ruby Ridge, Idaho, that occurred in March 1991. Even though ATF agents were not directly involved in the standoff that led to the death of a federal agent and the antigovernment extremist Randy Weaver's juvenile son and wife, the agency was nevertheless criticized for alleged malfeasance of its agents in the investigation that led to the standoff. The second incident began on February 28, 1993, when ATF agents unsuccessfully attempted to execute a federal search warrant at the Branch Davidian ranch at Mount Carmel near Waco, Texas. An intense gun battle took place, resulting in the deaths of four agents and six Branch Davidians. The Federal Bureau of Investigation subsequently assumed control of the standoff and initiated a siege of the Branch Davidian compound. This led to a fire that destroyed the compound and killed 76 people, including 24 children. Major changes were made in the ATF hierarchy as well as systemic changes in the agency hiring, recruiting, and training procedures following government investigations into the two controversial incidents.

As part of the Homeland Security Act signed by President George W. Bush after the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, ATF's regulatory and enforcement functions for firearms and explosives were transferred from the Treasury to DOJ. The agency's title was also changed to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. Despite the name change, the agency is still referred to as ATF. The agency's regulatory responsibilities for alcohol and tobacco were given to a newly formed Treasury entity, the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau.

In recent years, the established link between firearms and drug trafficking has resulted in a significant portion of ATF's resources being dedicated to counternarcotics activities and the reduction of firearms-related violence. The agency is considered a major repository for gang-related information and intelligence incidents. ATF continues to dedicate significant resources to ensure that federally licensed gun dealers comply with federal firearm statutes. ATF is responsible for the National Integrated Ballistic Information Network, a state-of-the-art computerized program that enables law enforcement officers to rapidly determine if a piece of recovered ballistic evidence came from a firearm that was previously used in a crime. The agency has also been recognized for its investigative expertise in responding to both arson and explosives incidents. Specially trained ATF agents with postblast and cause-and-origin expertise assist federal, state, and local investigators with significant arson and explosives events. ATF agents also provide foreign governments with technical and forensic assistance in arson, explosives, and firearm smuggling investigations.

See Also: 1941 to 1960 Primary Documents; Drug Enforcement Administration; Federal Bureau of Investigation; Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act of 1968; Prohibition; Ruby Ridge Standoff; Volstead Act; Waco Siege.

Further Readings
  • Bock, Alan W. Ambush at Ruby Ridge. Irvine, CA: Dickens Press, 1995.
  • Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. (Accessed September 2011).
  • Vizzard, William J. In the Cross Fire: A Political History of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 1977.
Deborah A. Sibila
Sam Houston State University
© 2012 SAGE Publications, Inc

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