If you have any information about terrorist activities you can contact the ATF through their toll-free hotline.

Arsons Contact: 1-888-ATF-FIRE

Explosives Incidents Contact: 1-888-ATF-BOMB

Firearms Activity Contact: 1-800-ATF-GUNS

The ATF is part of the US Department of the Treasury. Once the US Constitution was put into place in 1789, the government had the power to tax, and started with imported alcohol and tobacco products. They needed a department to enforce the collection of taxes from people who didn't want to pay. To do this task, Congress created the Office of Internal Revenue on July 1, 1862, which was part of the Department of the Treasury. Until 1886 their duty was the enforcment of tax collection, when the Oleomargarine Act allowed it to have a laboratory to study and investigate evidence.

In 1919 with the ratification of the Eighteenth Amendment, officers within the office had the new job of investigating criminal violations of the Internal Revenue law, including the illegal manufacture of liquor. Once prohibition was abolished by the Twenty-first Amendment in 1933, the duties for enforcing the ban on alcohol needed to be changed. On March 10, 1934 the ATU (Alcohol Tax Unit) was created within the Bureau of Internal Revenue of the Department of the Treasury to regulate alcohol and enforce taxes.

When the National Firearms Act was passed in 1934, then followed by the Federal Firearms Act in 1938, the enforcment fell to the ATU. The duty came to the ATU because it collected taxes related to firearms, and the regulation of them. With the Bureau of Internal Revenue's reorganization in 1952, it was re-named the IRS (Internal Revenue Service), and the ATU re-designated the ATF (Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms Division). The ATF's laboratory was given responsibility for explosives in 1968 with the Gun Control Act. The Treasury Department Order No. 120-1 on July 1, 1972 transferred the duties related to alcohol, tobacco, firearms, and explosives directly to the ATF from the IRS, creating the department we know today.

Since then, the ATF has been used to reduce violent crimes and collect revenue. Also enforcing regulations related to alcohol, tobacco, firearms, explosives, and arson.

This is the agency Ronald Reagan once called "an Agency in Search of a Mission".

Recently in the States there was that embarrassing incident with the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) welcoming dead terrorists to flight school (the INS was really sorry about the delay!). The nation was appalled, and acted swiftly to disband the INS, recognizing among other things the problems inherent in an agency that tries to be both a tough cop and a sympathetic social worker. These two basic functions of the INS have, for the moment at least, been delegated to newly created branches of other, existing agencies.

It remains to be seen if these two agencies will do any better making sense of the US immigration laws, themselves a schizophrenic mish-mash. But it cannot be emphasized enough how positive a development I believe this to be. Instead of the standard response, which is to add yet another layer of oversight and overlapping jurisdiction (Immigration Czar, anyone?), the powers that be took the revolutionary step of actually eliminating a major arm of government. Even if the two agencies perform no better than the old INS, at least we'll have one less top-level agency yammering for funding and power.2

Now if we could only disband the ATF this way, without waiting for another 3000 dead.

Why the scientific and consumer safety aspects of Alcohol and Tobacco can't be handled by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), is never explained. Why the tax duties can't be handled by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), is not discussed. Why the Firearms and other violent stuff can't be handled by the "nation's police force", the Federal Bureau of Investigation, is not for voters to know. Those of you non-USians, please note that all these vices, and guns, are strictly regulated at the state and local level too.

Its not like the ATF hasn't had its big controversy1. You know, the one that (he claims) inspired that other thing. Permit me to mention some of ATF's less violent absurdities:

  • Alcohol Labeling

    "For years the evidence that one or two drinks a day can be good for you has mounted. In 1996, the Federal Dietary Guidelines finally conceded that "moderate drinking is associated with a lower risk for coronary heart disease." But the BATF continues to bar beer, wine, and liquor companies from making truthful statements about the medical benefits of moderate alcohol consumption on labels and in advertisements.

    "So the Competitive Enterprise Institute and Consumer Alert have filed suit to force the agency to permit makers of alcoholic beverages to tell the truth. 'Although the First Amendment doesn't mention ATF by name, we've got a hunch it applies to them as well,' says CEI's General Counsel Sam Kazman.

    "But Kazman says the case is about more than upholding the First Amendment. Most Americans have no idea that alcohol can have health benefits. CEI conducted a poll of 1,000 registered voters in late October and learned that only 41.7 percent know wine has health benefits. Just one in 10 know this is true for beer and liquor as well."
    http://reason.com/9702/citings.html#TIA. The Competitive Enterprise Institute (pro-business) and Consumer Alert (pro-consumer) don't often agree like this.
  • Can't Even Enforce Existing Law

    "Nationwide thousands of laws regulate everything from who can own a gun and how it can be purchased to where one can possess or use it. Yet, in 1998, thousands of guns were brought illegally onto school grounds, but there were only eight federal prosecutions. From 1992 to 1999, according to a Syracuse University study, federal gun prosecutions declined by 43 percent. During the two years ended mid-1999, half of the guns used in crimes were traced by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms to 389 dealers, but only 19 had their licenses revoked. Julius Wachtel, retired after 23 years as an ATF agent, remarked that he and his coworkers had a saying: 'No cases, no waves; little cases, little waves; big cases, big waves.'

    "An ATF study released in June 2000 documented 1,700 federal and state gun-law prosecutions and 1,000 verdicts from July 1996 through December 1998. On a per year basis, that’s 680 prosecutions and 400 guilty pleas -- trivial numbers when contrasted with roughly 500,000 gun crimes committed in the United States each year."
    http://www.cato.org/pubs/pas/pa400.pdf, pp 9-10. Imagine a workplace culture in which their primary mission, enforcing the law, is 'making waves', and best avoided.

Notes

1. There is an outstanding Public Broadcasting System (PBS) documentary called "Rules of Engagement" that dissects the ATF and FBI misconduct and outright lying to Congress in the Branch Davidian / Waco siege. PBS isn't exactly known as a hive of right-wing fanaticism.

2. Since I started work on this write-up, several other federal bureaucracies, particularly the FBI, have discovered masses of egg on their face, and the whole mess is being re-cast as the Office of Homeland Security. I was initially against the Homeland Security Czar concept because it appeared to be just another layer on top of already dysfunctional agencies. The new Homeland Security Office could be a positive step, if its done right, and if it consolidates agencies and eliminates overlapping jurisdictions. But its not yet clear that it will be -- it may be still co-opted into an excuse to increase everyone's budget. I suppose the leading indicator will be the how the personnel and budget for this new agency compare with the ones it replaces.

Disclaimer

Koresh was a misguided religionist, McVeigh was a terrorist. I am a supporter of neither of them. Nor am I attempting to say the ATF or INS caused the disasters mentioned here. These disasters simply exposed just how poorly these agencies perform.

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