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Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives


Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives

"BATF" redirects here. For the gene, see BATF (gene).

Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives
Common name Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms
Abbreviation ATF
Former flag of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives
Seal of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives
Badge of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
Flag of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives
Agency overview
Formed July 1, 1972[1]
Preceding agency Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms
Employees 4,770 (2013)[2]
Annual budget US$1.152 billion (2012)[3]
Legal personality Governmental: Government agency
Jurisdictional structure
Federal agency United States
General nature
  • Federal law enforcement
  • Civilian agency
Operational structure
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Agency executives
  • B. Todd Jones, Director
  • Thomas E. Brandon, Deputy Director
Parent agency United States Department of Justice

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) is a federal law enforcement organization within the United States Department of Justice.[4] Its responsibilities include the investigation and prevention of federal offenses involving the unlawful use, manufacture and possession of firearms and explosives; acts of arson and bombings; and illegal trafficking of alcohol and tobacco products. The ATF also regulates via licensing the sale, possession, and transportation of firearms, ammunition, and explosives in interstate commerce. Many of ATF's activities are carried out in conjunction with task forces made up of state and local law enforcement officers, such as Project Safe Neighborhoods. ATF operates a unique fire research laboratory in Beltsville, Maryland, where full-scale mock-ups of criminal arson can be reconstructed.

The agency is led by B. Todd Jones, Director,[5] and Thomas E. Brandon, Deputy Director.[6] ATF has 4,770 employees,[2] and an annual budget of $1.2 billion (2012).[3]

Organizational history

The ATF was formerly part of the United States Department of the Treasury, having been formed in 1886 as the "Revenue Laboratory" within the Treasury Department's Bureau of Internal Revenue. The history of ATF can be subsequently traced to the time of the revenuers or "revenoors"[7] and the Bureau of Prohibition, which was formed as a unit of the Bureau of Internal Revenue in 1920, was made an independent agency within the Treasury Department in 1927, was transferred to the Justice Department in 1930, and became, briefly, a division of the FBI in 1933.

When the Volstead Act, which established prohibition in the United States, was repealed in December 1933, the Unit was transferred from the Department of Justice back to the Department of the Treasury where it became the Alcohol Tax Unit (ATU) of the Bureau of Internal Revenue. Special Agent Eliot Ness and several members of The "Untouchables", who had worked for the Prohibition Bureau while the Volstead Act was still in force, were transferred to the ATU. In 1942, responsibility for enforcing federal firearms laws was given to the ATU.

In the early 1950s, the Bureau of Internal Revenue was renamed "Internal Revenue Service" (IRS),[8] and the ATU was given the additional responsibility of enforcing federal tobacco tax laws. At this time, the name of the ATU was changed to the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax Division (ATTD).

In 1968, with the passage of the Gun Control Act, the agency changed its name again, this time to the Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms Division of the IRS and first began to be referred to by the initials "ATF". In Title XI of the Organized Crime Control Act of 1970, Congress enacted the Explosives Control Act, 18 U.S.C.A. Chapter 40, which provided for close regulation of the explosives industry and designated certain arsons and bombings as federal crimes. The Secretary of the Treasury was made responsible for administering the regulatory aspects of the new law, and was given jurisdiction over criminal violations relating to the regulatory controls. These responsibilities were delegated to the ATF division of the IRS. The Secretary and the Attorney General were given concurrent jurisdiction over arson and bombing offenses. Pub.L. 91-452, 84 Stat. 922, October 15, 1970.

In 1972 ATF was established as a separate Bureau within the Treasury Department when Treasury Department Order 221, effective July 1, 1972, transferred the responsibilities of the ATF division of the IRS to the new Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms. Rex D. Davis oversaw the transition, becoming the bureau's first director, having headed the division since 1970. During his tenure, Davis shepherded the organization into a new era where federal firearms and explosives laws addressing violent crime became the primary mission of the agency.[9] However, taxation and other alcohol issues remained priorities as ATF collected billions of dollars in alcohol and tobacco taxes, and undertook major revisions of the Federal wine labeling regulations relating to use of appellations of origin and varietal designations on wine labels.

In the wake of the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, President George W. Bush signed into law the Homeland Security Act of 2002. In addition to the creation of the Department of Homeland Security, the law shifted ATF from the Department of the Treasury to the Department of Justice. The agency's name was changed to Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives. However, the agency still was referred to as the "ATF" for all purposes. Additionally, the task of collection of federal tax revenue derived from the production of tobacco and alcohol products and the regulatory function related to protecting the public in issues related to the production of alcohol, previously handled by the Bureau of Internal Revenue as well as by ATF, was transferred to the newly established Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB), which remained within the Treasury Department. These changes took effect January 24, 2003.

ATF and violent crime

Since 2001, ATF Agents have recommended over 10,000 felons every year for federal prosecution for firearms possession just through the Project Safe Neighborhoods framework. In PSN's first year, 2001–2002, over 7700 of these cases resulted in convictions with an average sentence of over five years per defendant.[10] This number had risen to over 12,000 prosecutions in FY 2007.[11] The annual FBI Uniform Crime Report (UCR) demonstrated that throughout the decade of 2001–2010, the reduction of violent crime offenses in United States Districts with dedicated Project Safe Neighborhood Agents and United States Attorneys far outperformed the national average.[11]

Generally, about 90% of the cases referred by ATF for prosecution each year are for firearms, violent crime, and narcotics offenses. Through the first half of 2011, ATF (with fewer than 2,000 active Special Agents) had recommended 5,203 cases for prosecution.[12] This yields an average of 5.0 cases per agent per year. For comparison, the FBI (with slightly more than 13,000 active Special Agents) had recommended 8,819 cases for prosecution,[13] for an average of 1.2 cases per agent in per year.


ATF, as a bureau, consists of several different groups that each have their own respective role, commanded by a director. Special Agents currently comprise around 2,400 of the Agency's approximately 5,000 personnel.

ATF Investigators (formerly Regulatory Inspectors and not to be confused with Special Agents) are charged with regulating the gun and explosive industry. These men and women are not armed law enforcement officers but have administrative authority to search and conduct inspections, as well as to recommend revocation and/or non-renewal of Federal Firearms Licenses to licensees who are in violation of Federal firearms laws and regulations.[15]

The remainder of the Bureau is personnel in various staff roles from office administrative assistants to intelligence analysts and electronic specialists. Additionally, ATF relies heavily on state and local task force officers to supplement the Special Agents and who are not officially part of the ATF roster.

Hiring and training

ATF Special Agent hiring is fiercely competitive, comparable to the selection process of other Special Agent positions in sister agencies. Typically far less than 5% of qualified applicants – those possessing at minimum a four year bachelor degree and competitive work experience (which is usually four or more years at a local or state police department) are eventually hired. ATF's hiring process has a nondisclosure agreement so the specific details of the process are not completely revealed, however applicants must pass a rigorous background check in order to achieve, at minimum, a top secret clearance. In addition to the background check agents must pass written tests, multiple physical fitness tests, interviews and medical exams even to be considered to be selected for training.

ATF Special Agents must complete a 27 week training program at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center in Glynco, Georgia. It is one of the longest training programs in the United States, far longer than any other training program of Justice Department Special Agents (FBI, DEA, USMS). This training program currently consists of a one week pre-Basic, the twelve week basic Criminal Investigator Training Program, and a fourteen week Special Agent Basic Training Course. Only then are Special Agents released to a field office to begin a three year probationary tour.


Members of ATF are issued the Glock 22 or the Glock 27 as their sidearm while the agents are trained in the use of, and issued, long arms if it meets certain requirements. To encounter dangerous criminals, the ATF would send their professional SWAT team named Special Response Team (SRT), which they are armed with Heckler & Koch MP5 sub-machine guns or other weapons needed to the mission.

Field divisions

The ATF has several field offices across the nation in major cities. Those cities are: Atlanta, GA; Baltimore, MD; Boston, MA; Charlotte, NC; Chicago, IL; Columbus, OH; Dallas, TX; Denver, CO; Detroit, MI; Houston, TX; Kansas City, MO; Los Angeles, CA; Louisville, KY; Miami, FL; Nashville, TN; Newark, NJ; New Orleans, LA; New York, NY; Philadelphia, PA; Phoenix, AZ; San Francisco, CA; Seattle, WA; St. Paul, MN; Tampa, FL; Washington, D.C.. Also there are field offices in different countries such as Canada, Mexico, El Salvador, Colombia, Iraq, and in the Caribbean (all supervised by Miami).[16]

Regulation of firearms

ATF is responsible for regulating firearm commerce in the United States. The Bureau issues Federal Firearms Licenses (FFL) to sellers, and conducts firearms licensee inspections. The Bureau is also involved in programs aimed at reducing gun violence in the United States, by targeting and arresting violent offenders who unlawfully possess firearms. ATF was also involved with the Youth Crime Gun Interdiction Initiative, which expanded tracing of firearms recovered by law enforcement, and the ongoing Comprehensive Crime Gun Tracing Initiative.[17] ATF also provides support to state and local investigators, through the National Integrated Ballistic Identification Network (NIBIN) program.

Firearms tracing

ATF's Comprehensive Crime Gun Tracing Initiative is the largest operation of its kind in the world. In FY07, ATF's National Tracing Center processed over 285,000 trace requests on guns for over 6,000 law enforcement agencies in 50 countries. ATF uses a Web-based system, known as eTrace, that provides law enforcement agencies with the capability to securely and electronically send trace requests, receive trace results, and conduct basic trace analysis in real time. Over 2,000 agencies and more than 17,000 individuals currently use eTrace, including over 33 foreign law enforcement agencies. Gun tracing provides information to Federal, State, local and foreign law enforcement agencies on the history of a firearm from the manufacturer (or importer), through the distribution chain, to the first retail purchaser. This information is used to link suspects to firearms in criminal investigations, identify potential traffickers, and detect in-state, interstate, and international patterns in the sources and types of crime guns.[18]

Firearms ballistic tracing

ATF provides investigative support to its partners through the National Integrated Ballistic Information Network (NIBIN), which allows Federal, State, and local law enforcement agencies to image and compare crime gun evidence. NIBIN currently has 203 sites. In FY07, NIBIN's 174 partner agencies imaged more than 183,000 bullets and casings into the database, resulting in over 5,200 matches that provided investigative leads.[18]

Regulation of explosives

With the passage of the Organized Crime Control Act (OCCA) in 1970, ATF took over the regulation of explosives in the United States, as well as prosecution of persons engaged in criminal acts involving explosives. One of the most notable investigations successfully conducted by ATF agents was the tracing of the car used in the World Trade Center 1993 bombings, which led to the arrest of persons involved in the conspiracy.

ATF also enforces provisions of the Safe Explosives Act, passed after 9/11 to restrict the use/possession of explosives without a Federal license to use them. ATF is considered to be the leading federal agency in most bombings that occur within the U.S., with exception to bombings related to international terrorism (investigated by the FBI).

ATF currently trains the U.S. military in evidence recovery procedures after a bombing. All ATF Agents are trained in post-blast investigation, however ATF maintains a cadre of approximately 150 highly trained explosive experts known as Certified Explosives Specialists (CES). ATF/CES Agents are trained as experts regarding Improvised Explosive Devices (IED's), as well as commercial explosives. ATF Agents work closely with State and Local Bomb Disposal Units within the United States.

History of controversy

ATF during the 1980s

Further information: Firearm Owners Protection Act

Complaints regarding the techniques used by ATF in their effort to generate firearm cases led to hearings before Congressional committees in the late 1970s and 1980s. At these hearings evidence was received from citizens who had been charged by ATF, from experts who had studied ATF, and from officials of the Bureau itself. A Senate Subcommittee report stated that "Based upon these hearings it is apparent that ATF enforcement tactics made possible by current federal firearms laws are constitutionally, legally, and practically reprehensible."[19]

The Subcommittee received evidence that ATF primarily devoted its firearms enforcement efforts to the apprehension, upon technical malum prohibitum charges, of individuals who lack all criminal intent and knowledge. Evidence received demonstrated that ATF agents tended to concentrate upon collector's items rather than "criminal street guns".[19]

Beginning in 1975, Bureau officials apparently reached a judgment that a dealer who sells to a legitimate purchaser may nonetheless be subject to prosecution or license revocation if he knows that that individual intends to transfer the firearm to a nonresident or other unqualified purchaser (Straw purchase). This position was never published in the Federal Register and is indeed contrary to indications which Bureau officials had given Congress, that such sales were not in violation of existing law. Rather than informing dealers of this distinction, ATF agents set out to produce mass arrests based on "Straw purchase" sale charges, sending out undercover agents to entice dealers into transfers of this type.[19]

In hearings before ATF's Appropriations Subcommittee, however, expert evidence was submitted establishing that approximately 75 percent of ATF gun prosecutions were aimed at ordinary citizens who had neither criminal intent nor knowledge, but were enticed by agents into unknowing technical violations.[19]

The Firearm Owners Protection Act of 1986 addressed some of the abuses noted in the 1982 Senate Judiciary Subcommittee report.

ATF during the 1990s

Further information: Ruby Ridge and Waco Siege

Two incidents in the early 1990s—Ruby Ridge and the Waco Siege—involved the ATF and later the Federal Bureau of Investigation's Hostage Rescue Team (HRT). Both brought criticism to the ATF and FBI.

The Ruby Ridge Siege began in June 1990. Randy Weaver was pressured by Kenneth Fadeley, an ATF informant, to shorten the barrels on two shotguns and sell these to Fadeley. Weaver maintained the barrels were a legal length, but after Fadeley took possession, the shotguns were later found to be shorter than allowed by federal law, requiring registration as a short-barreled shotgun and payment of a $200 tax. ATF filed firearms charges against Weaver, but offered to drop the charges if he would become an informant. After Weaver refused to cooperate, ATF passed on false information about Weaver to other agencies that became part of a misleading file that profiled Weaver as having explosive booby traps, tunnels and bunkers at his home; growing marijuana; having felony convictions; and being a bank robber.[20] (At his later trial, the gun charges were determined to be entrapment and Weaver was acquitted.) However, Weaver missed a February 20, 1991, court date because U.S. Probation Officer Richins mistakenly told Weaver that the trial date was March 20, and the US Marshals Service (USMS) was charged with bringing Weaver in. Weaver remained with his family in their mountain top cabin. On August 21, 1992, a USMS surveillance team was involved in a shootout that left US Marshal Bill Degan, Samuel Weaver (14), and his pet dog dead. FBI HRT laid siege to the cabin; the next day, Lon Horiuchi, an FBI HRT sniper, opened fire on the Weavers, killing Weaver's wife, Vicki, and wounding Weaver and a family friend. A subsequent Department of Justice review and a Congressional hearing raised several questions about the actions of ATF, USMS, USAO and FBI HRT and the mishandling of intelligence at the USMS and FBI headquarters.[21] The Ruby Ridge incident has become a lightning rod for legal activists within the gun rights community.

The second incident was the Waco Siege of the Branch Davidian religious sect near Waco, Texas, on February 28, 1993. ATF agents, accompanied by the press, conducted a raid to execute a federal search warrant on the sect's compound, known as Mt. Carmel. The Branch Davidians were alerted to the upcoming warrant execution but ATF raid leaders pressed on, despite knowing the advantage of surprise was lost. (ATF Director Steve Higgins had promised Treasury Under-Secretary Ron Noble that the Waco raid would be canceled if the ATF undercover agent Robert Rodriguez reported that the element of surprise had been lost.) The resulting exchange of gunfire left six Davidians and four ATF agents dead. FBI HRT later took over the scene and a 51-day stand-off ensued, ending on April 19, 1993, after the complex caught fire, possibly as a result of the HRT's introduction of flammable tear gas into the compound. The follow-up investigation revealed the bodies of seventy-six people including twenty children inside the compound. Although a grand jury found that the deaths were suicides or otherwise caused by people inside the building, accusations of excessive force by law enforcement persist.[22] Shortly after the raid, the bureau's director, Stephen E. Higgins, retired early from his position.

Timothy McVeigh cited these incidents as his motivation for the Oklahoma City Bombing, which took place on April 19, 1995, exactly two years after the end of the Waco Siege.[23]

In 1994, two ATF supervisory agents, Phillip J. Chojnacki and Charles D. Sarabyn, who were suspended for their roles in leading the Waco raid were reinstated in December 1994, with full back pay and benefits (with a demotion) despite a Treasury Department report of gross negligence. The incident was removed from their personnel files.[24]

ATF during the 2000s

A September 2008 report by the Department of Justice, Office of the Inspector General, determined that 76 firearms and 418 laptop computers were lost, stolen or missing from ATF, after a 59 month audit period between 2002 and 2007.[25]

Between May 2004 and August 2005, ATF Agents, in conjunction with Virginia State and local police, conducted an operation at some eight gun shows in Virginia. With special attention to female purchasers, many gun show attendees were stopped by agents as they returned home, then detained while being interrogated, and many had their purchases confiscated by ATF agents. The purchasers were compelled by an ATF letter to appear at ATF offices to explain and justify their purchases. ATF stated this was a "Pilot Program" that ATF was planning to apply throughout the country. In addition, in Pittsburgh, Pa., ATF agents showed up at gun show customers' homes a week after a show, demanding to see the buyers' guns or sale paperwork and arresting those who could not—or would not—comply.[26][26] This ATF operation was the subject of a Congressional hearing where witnesses testified of harassment, intimidation and verbal abuse by ATF Agents, and ATF Agents actively dissuaded customers from purchasing firearms.[27]

ATF during the 2010s

Further information: ATF gunwalking scandal

In May 2008, William Newell, Special Agent in charge of the Phoenix ATF Office, said: "When 90 percent-plus of the firearms recovered from these violent drug cartels are from a U.S. source, we have a responsibility to do everything we can to stem the illegal flow of these firearms to these thugs."[28] According to the Department of Justice Office of the Inspector General, "ATF told the OIG that the 90-percent figure ... could be misleading because it applied only to the small portion of Mexican crime guns that are traced."[29] Under Operations "Fast and Furious", "Too Hot to Handle", and "Wide Receiver", indictments show that the Phoenix ATF Office, over protests from the gun dealers and some ATF agents involved and without notifying Mexican authorities, facilitated the sale of over 2,500 firearms (AK-47 rifles, FN 5.7mm pistols, AK-47 pistols, and .50 caliber rifles) to traffickers destined for Mexico.[30][31][32][33][34] Many of these same guns are being recovered from crime scenes in Arizona[35] and throughout Mexico,[36] which is artificially inflating ATF's eTrace statistics of U.S. origin guns seized in Mexico. One gun is alleged to be the weapon used by a Mexican national to murder Customs and Border Protection Agent Brian Terry on December 14, 2010. ATF and DOJ denied all allegations. After appearing at a Congressional Hearing, three supervisors of Fast and Furious (William G. McMahon, Newell, and David Voth) were reported as being transferred and promoted by ATF.[37] ATF denied the transfers were promotions.[38]

In June 2011, Vince Cefalu, an ATF special agent for 24 years who in December 2010 exposed ATF's "Project Gunrunner" scandal, was notified of his termination. Two days before the termination, Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, sent a letter to the ATF warning officials not to retaliate against whistleblowers. Cefalu's dismissal followed allegations that ATF retaliates against whistleblowers. ATF spokesman Drew Wade denied that the bureau is retaliating but declined to comment about Cefalu's case.[39][40]


A list of recent ATF directors:[41]

  • 1970–1978 Rex D. Davis (b. 1924 – d. 2008)[9]
  • 1979–1982 G.R. Dickerson
  • 1982–1993 Stephen Higgins (b. 1938)
  • 1993–1999 John Magaw (b. 1935)
  • 1999–2004 Bradley A. Buckles (b. 1949)
  • 2004 Edgar A. Domenech (1st time—acting)
  • 2004–2006 Carl Truscott (b. 1957)
  • 2006 Edgar A. Domenech (2nd time—acting)
  • 2006–2009 Michael Sullivan (acting)
  • 2009 Ronald "Ronnie" A. Carter (acting)
  • 2009–2011 Kenneth E. Melson (acting)
  • 2011–present B. Todd Jones

Senate approval controversy

The job of ATF director has required United States Senate confirmation only since 2006, but that never happened until 2013, leaving the agency in the hands of acting directors in the interim.[42]

Lobbying by the National Rifle Association helped establish the confirmation requirement. In 2007, Bush nominated Mike Sullivan for the position, a U.S. Attorney from Boston with a good reputation, but Republican Sens. Larry Craig and Michael D. Crapo, both from Idaho, blocked his confirmation after complaints from an Idaho gun dealer. In 2010, Obama nominated Andrew Traver, head of the ATF's Denver division, to fill the top spot, but the Senate never held his confirmation hearings.[43][44] The NRA strongly opposed Traver's nomination.[45] Ultimately B. Todd Jones was nominated by President Obama and confirmed by the Senate as permanent ATF director on July 31, 2013.[46]

See also


External links

  • ATF Badge
  • (Search ATF Regulations)
  • RSS Feed
  • U.S. Department of State, Diplomatic Security Service (DSS)
  • Proposed and finalized federal regulations from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives

Template:US Alcohol Template:DOJ agencies Template:Federal law enforcement agencies of the United States

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