Take Away ATF’s Guns and Badges

Time to Take Away the Guns & Badges

By Jeff Knox

(September 8, 2016) It is the nature of bureaucracies to grow – in size, scope, and power. Various agencies compete for authority, staff, and budgets. They schmooze politicians and try to grab headlines in efforts to achieve these goals, and they are never ever satisfied with what they have.

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives, or ATF as they like to be called, is an excellent example of this phenomenon. In the early 1900’s, a small research branch within the Department of Internal Revenue became known as the Bureau of Prohibition, and was tasked with chasing bootleggers. It grew, was moved from Treasury to the Justice Department, and was, for a time, a division of the FBI.

To get the funding they needed to grow, the Bureau of Prohibition got remarkably good at promoting itself in the media. It became common for agents to make pre-raid phone calls to friendly reporters so they could be on-scene as major busts occurred, and agents like Eliot Ness became national heroes, erroneously credited with taking down Al Capone.

With the end of Prohibition, the Bureau was transferred back to Treasury, where it became the Alcohol Tax Unit, but their gun-slinging, gangster fighting reputation earned them regulatory authority over production and sale of machine guns when Congress passed the National Firearms Act in 1934, and even more firearms oversight with passage of the Federal Firearms Act in 1938, regulating gun dealers and manufacturers. This gave the ATU a big boost in scope and budget, but in spite of the sexy-seeming idea of dealing with machine guns, enforcement of the NFA and FFA turned out to be primarily an accounting job. With little excitement on the gun front, the ATU turned their attention to mostly small, moonshine operations that continued to produce un-taxed liquor throughout the Appellation mountains. As “revenooers,” the agency maintained their image as intrepid crime fighters by using aggressive and brutal tactics against the hard-bitten mountain men, resulting in violent clashes and lots of publicity. This provided plenty of good press opportunities and led to exaggerations in popular books and movies – along with the creation of NASCAR.

In subsequent years, ATF’s responsibilities regarding guns increased. By the late ’70s ATF was again making headlines, but not good ones. Having discovered that catching real criminals engaged in serious gun crimes was difficult, the agency was focusing their attention on technical violations of the nation’s gun laws, but they were still using their trademark aggressive tactics, resulting in people being killed and lives being destroyed over minor paperwork errors. In 1978 and ’79, Congress investigated some of these activities, chastising ATF and pulling money from their budget. This also led to passage of the Firearm Owners’ Protection Act in 1986.

In frustration, ATF turned its attention to “right-wing hate groups” and “anti-government militias,” using possible weapons violations as an excuse to wade into what was normally FBI territory. In 1992 they tried to force a reclusive separatist into infiltrating the Aryan Nation organization by accusing him of selling a pair of shotguns which ATF said had barrels that were a quarter-inch too short. This led directly to the deaths of a 14-year old boy and his mother, along with a U.S. Marshal on Ruby Ridge in rural Idaho.

Failing to learn their lesson, less than a year later, the ATF launched a raid on the facilities of a small religious group outside of Waco, Texas. The group believed Armageddon was going to start with the federal government trying to murder them, so when the ATF launched their military-style assault, shooting chained dogs out front and storming the buildings, something like Armageddon did break out. Four ATF agents were killed along with six church members, leading to a 51-day standoff that ended with the church going up in flames and at least 76 men, women, and children dying.

Two years later, a truck full of fertilizer and racing fuel was exploded in front of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. Ruby Ridge and Waco were cited by the perpetrators as major motivation for their actions.

After that, the ATF laid low for a time. They attempted to restore their reputation in 2002 with a two-year, multi-million dollar, deep-cover investigation of the Hells Angels motorcycle gang, but botched the operation so badly that no serious prosecutions resulted. This led to years of court battles between ATF and the undercover agent at the center of the operation, after his cover was blown, his house was burned down, and ATF tried to confiscate the royalties from a book he wrote about the investigation. It turned out to be an expensive mess that only resulted in another expensive mess – and additional embarrassment for the ATF.

In December 2010, U.S. Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry was killed in a gun battle near Naco, Arizona. It was later discovered that the gun used to kill him had been purchased at a Phoenix gun shop and allowed to be smuggled across the border – along with nearly 2000 others – by the Phoenix ATF office. The gun-walking operation known as Operation Fast and Furious was uncovered by citizen-journalist Mike Vanderbough in collaboration with writer David Codrea. WND was among the first to report on the scandal with this column published in early February, 2011.

While the scandal resulted in some shake-ups at ATF – and the first-ever contempt of Congress citation for a U.S. Attorney General, many questions have still not been answered, and no one has been held to account for the operation that facilitated Agent Terry’s death and the deaths of possibly hundreds of Mexicans.

ATF followed this up with storefront sting operations in several cities where they set up fake stores that paid criminals for stolen goods in hopes of attracting illegal guns. The results tended to be lots of low-level thieves selling lots of stolen electronics and jewelry to U.S. taxpayers. Indications are that the sting operations caused increases in petty crime, and little in the way of useful intelligence or prosecutable serious offenses. Those operations have now been harshly criticized in an Inspector General’s report from the Department of Justice.

What all of this leads to is the inescapable conclusion that this is not a reliable law enforcement agency, and it’s agents should not be allowed guns and badges. The vast majority of ATF’s responsibilities lie in monitoring paperwork and collecting taxes. Their criminal investigation resources should be turned over to the FBI, and the ATF should be reorganized as an agency of bean-counters and pencil-pushers.