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Tobacco Alcohol Firearms and Bureau of Explosives

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For more than 80 years, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms was an agency of the U.S. Department of the Treasury. The Homeland Security Act of 2002, Pub. L. No. 107-296, 116 Stat. 2135, divided the agency into two bureaus: the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (still referred to as ATF) and the Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB). Effective January 24, 2003, the ATF became part of the JUSTICE DEPARTMENT, while the TTB remained part of the TREASURY DEPARTMENT. The move of the ATF to the Justice Department would allow ATF agents and inspectors to partner with traditional law enforcement agencies, such as the FEDERAL BUREAU OF INVESTIGATION. With this change, the TTB became responsible for revenue collection and regulation of legitimate alcohol and tobacco industries.

The ATF itself was established on July 1, 1972, but it traces its roots to the days of PROHIBITION. The legendary Eliot Ness and his Untouchables, famous U.S. revenue agents remembered for their dramatic surprise raids on illegal alcohol operations, were predecessors of twenty-first century ATF agents. The Untouchables earned their name because of their reputation for high moral integrity and resistance to corruption.

Before the division of the bureau in 2002, the ATF had a long and somewhat complex history. With the passage of the EIGHTEENTH AMENDMENT, the manufacture, sale, transportation, importation, and exportation of "intoxicating liquors" from or to the United States or its territories became illegal. This amendment ushered in Prohibition, an era of ORGANIZED CRIME and underworld syndicates that controlled an illicit liquor business with violence and intimidation. In an attempt to stanch the flow of weapons to these criminals, Congress passed several laws to regulate the firearms and ammunition industries. Originally, the Bureau of Prohibition was responsible for administering these laws. In 1942, the Alcohol Tax Unit (ATU), a forerunner of the ATF, formally took over the bureau's job when the bureau was disbanded following repeal of the Eighteenth Amendment. In 1952, the ATU added enforcement of tobacco tax laws to its list of responsibilities and changed its title to the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax Division (ATTD) of the INTERNAL REVENUE SERVICE (IRS).

During the 1960s, Congress recognized the need to control destructive devices other than firearms. The Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act of 1968 and the Gun Control Act of 1968, 18 U.S.C.A. § 921 et seq., superseded earlier firearms control laws and placed bombs and other explosives as well as firearms under the strict control of the government. The ATTD was given jurisdiction over the criminal use of explosives and was renamed the Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms Division (ATFD) of the IRS.

In 1970, the Organized Crime Control Act, 18 U.S.C.A. 841-848, which included the Explosives Control Act, 18 U.S.C.A. § 842, provided for close regulation of the explosives industry and designated certain arsons and bombings as federal crimes. With the additional responsibility of enforcing these new laws, the ATFD redefined its mission in order to distinguish itself from the IRS. On July 1, 1972, the ATFD was given full bureau status within the Treasury Department and acquired the name, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.

The ATF and TTB are responsible for enforcing and ensuring compliance with the following laws.

  • Federal Alcohol Administration Act, 27 U.S.C.A. § 201 et seq. (1935);
  • Internal Revenue Code of 1954, as it relates to distilled spirits, tobacco products, and firearms (26 U.S.C.A. §5001 et seq.);
  • Gun Control Act of 1968, as amended, 18 App. 26 U.S.C.A. § 5801 et seq.;
  • Title XI of the Organized Crime Control Act (1970) (Explosives Control Act) (22 U.S.C. §2778);

Three Bureau of ATF agents display firearms outside an ATF office in Maryland. The ATF is an agency of the U.S. Justice Department.

  • Portions of the Arms Export Control Act (1976);
  • Trafficking in Contraband Cigarettes Act (1978) 18 U.S.C.A. 2341–2346;
  • Anti-Arson Act of 1982 (amended title XI of the Organized Crime Control Act), 18 U.S.C.A. §§ 841 note, 844;
  • Armed Career Criminal Act of 1984, 18 App. U.S.C.A. §§ 1201, 1202

In the area of alcohol and tobacco regulation, as of 2003, the TTB controls production, labeling, advertising, and the relationships between producers, wholesalers, and retailers. The responsibility was previously under the purview of the ATF. TTB efforts are directed mainly at protecting consumers against products that are impure or mislabeled or otherwise potentially harmful.

During the 1980s, alcohol-related activities of the ATF focused on the promulgation and enforcement of labeling regulations. For example, in March 1994, the Miller Brewing Company replaced an advertisement for one of its beers in response to concerns raised by ATF officials. The advertisement showed the beer's label, which listed the product's alcohol content, a violation of the Federal Alcohol Administration Act (FAAA), 27 U.S.C.A. § 201 et seq., one of the laws the ATF enforces. However, the strength of that act was diluted later by a 1995 Supreme Court decision declaring the restriction unconstitutional. In Rubin v. Coors Brewing Co., 514 U.S. 476, 115 S. Ct. 1585, 131 L. Ed. 2d 532 (1995), the Court held that the subsection of the act that prohibits brewers from advertising the alcohol content of their beers was unnecessarily broad and violated the FIRST AMENDMENT. The Court stated further that the government's legitimate interest in preventing manufacturers from competing by increasing the alcohol content of their beers could be accomplished through less restrictive means, such as by directly limiting the alcohol content of beer or by banning the advertisement of alcohol content of high-alcohol brews.

During the 1980s and 1990s, ATF enforcement duties were increasingly focused on firearms as alcohol and tobacco regulation became mainly a matter of taxation. As of 1991, an estimated 270,000 dealers, importers, and manufacturers of firearms, ammunition, and explosives were licensed in the United States. Approximately 140 million to 200 million firearms were in circulation. The ATF must oversee enforcement of the laws regulating these items.

The ATF functioned with relative anonymity until February 28, 1993, when it became involved in an ill-fated raid that tainted its reputation and called its future into question. Acting on reports of stockpiled weapons and explosives at the headquarters of a religious sect, the Branch Davidians of Waco, Texas, ATF agents executed a military-style raid of the compound. The agents proceeded with the raid even after discovering that the Branch Davidians had been tipped off by an informant. In the ensuing gunfight, four ATF agents were killed and fifteen wounded. The Davidians refused to surrender, and the agents refused to back down. The standoff continued until April 19, when ATF agents again moved to take the compound by force. The raid turned into a shoot-out and conflagration in which 85 members of the cult, including 17 children, perished.

The bureau was widely criticized for its actions at Waco. A report on the incident issued by the Treasury Department concluded that the decision to proceed was wrong and that those in charge of the operation knew it was a mistake to proceed with the raid because the element of surprise was missing. The report found that bureau officials unwisely insisted on carrying out the February 28 raid even though the critical element of surprise had been lost. The bureau's director, Stephen E. Higgins, retired early from his position, and two agents, Phillip J. Chojnacki and Charles D. Sarabyn, were suspended for their roles in the botched raid. Chojnacki and Sarabyn appealed their suspensions, and, in December 1994, they were reinstated with full back pay and benefits, although they were demoted. In addition, the incident was removed from their personnel files.

The incident at Waco aroused the ire of many U.S. citizens, particularly right-wing militia groups who saw the raid as an example of government intrusion upon their right to keep and bear arms. The NATIONAL RIFLE ASSOCIATION sent out membership solicitation letters in 1995 described ATF agents as "jack-booted government thugs." Some believe that an April 1995 bombing of a federal building in Oklahoma City, which took place exactly two years after Waco, was planned in retaliation for the ATF raid on the Branch Davidians.

Controversy continues to surround the ATF. Some critics say that its agents are not sufficiently trained to carry out the types of operations its administrators seem to favor. Others contend that it lacks a coherent mission and that many of its duties, such as enforcement of alcohol regulations, are better suited to other agencies. The move toward a complete split between the agencies was expected to take some time.

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