Tasked with policing three of the most contentious vices in America, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives has been buffeted for decades by controversy and calls from the left and the right to dissolve it.
Today, the liberal think tank the Center for American Progress joined the chorus of critics and proposed that the ATF be abolished and its core duties be subsumed by the FBI. The report argues that, among other failures, the bureau “has struggled to define a coherent and manageable mission.”
The center’s 192-page report chronicles the ATF’s ups and downs in recent decades, particularly since 2002 when it moved from the Department of the Treasury to the Department of Justice as part of the Homeland Security Act. In the view of the report’s authors, the ATF is underfunded, and its goal of policing violent gun crime puts it at odds with its larger sibling, the FBI. Faced with lobbying efforts to restrict it from enforcing gun laws, the ATF has struggled to find its place in the Justice Department and has suffered from insufficient oversight.
Still, the report goes out of its way to laud ATF agents, who are faced with a daunting, if not unwinnable, mission.
“ATF agents as a group are exceptionally productive by traditional measures, especially when compared with agents at other federal law enforcement agencies. In 2013, ATF agents were remarkably productive in the development of cases for prosecution—outperforming Federal Bureau of Investigation, or FBI, agents 3-to-1—averaging 3.4 cases per agent referred to the U.S. Attorneys’ Office for prosecution for every 1 case per FBI agent. ATF agents, more so than most others in federal law enforcement, also have a strong reputation across the country for being assets and effective partners to local law enforcement agencies.”
The Center for American Progress is not the first to want to dismantle the bureau. In March, Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wisc.) introduced a bill titled the “ATF Elimination Act.” It would cut the ATF into pieces and split its work between the FBI and the DEA.
“The ATF is a scandal-ridden, largely duplicative agency that lacks a clear mission. Its 'Framework' is an affront to the Second Amendment and yet another reason why Congress should pass the ATF Elimination Act," Sensenbrenner said at the time, in a statement reported by The Hill.
The Republican, who has served in Congress since 1979 and chairs the House’s Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, Homeland Security and Investigations, introduced a similar measure last fall that failed to progress through the House.
Perhaps in a nod to potential fiscal conservative allies, the American Progress report estimates that moving the ATF into the FBI would save $411 million over 10 years.
For critics of the bureau, which traces its roots back to the presidency of Abraham Lincoln, there have long been reasons for complaint. Through much of the past 25 years, the bureau seems to have lurched from one scandal to another. While policy makers consider the recommendations of the Center for American Progress, Sensenbrenner and others, we’ve revisited some of the ATF’s least flattering episodes.
In 2013, the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel ran an extensive investigation into what it described as the ATF’s “rogue tactics” of setting up storefront stings in major cities and recruiting informants with mental disabilities as shills.
CBS News reported in 2013 how the ATF is hamstrung by anti-gun control lobbying and legislation. Prohibited by Congress from creating a national database of gun transactions, the bureau has to resort to 1960s investigation techniques of paper records and microfilm to try to trace guns used in crimes.
Two years earlier, the “Fast and the Furious” scandal emerged after a Border Patrol agent was killed in an Arizona shootout with bandits. At the scene of the fight, two weapons were recovered that were traced to a Phoenix ATF sting—named after the series of movies about illegal street racing—that let hundreds of firearms flow to Mexican drug cartels. A later investigation by Fortune magazine detailed the Machiavellian intrigue inside the bureau that led to “The Fast and the Furious” operation becoming a major embarrassment for the Justice Department.
In an investigation after the notorious Beltway Sniper shootings in Washington, DC, the Seattle Times reported on the ATF’s failures to shut down problem gun stores in Washington State, like the one that the killer, Lee Boyd Malvo, stole his rifle from. The store had sold the weapons used in more than 50 violent crimes. “This shop has all of the obvious indicators that something's wrong. When the bureau looked at it and found the problems were true, nothing was done.”
A local television report in 1995 on racism at the ATF led to a Justice Department investigation and a Congressional inquiry. The ensuing media coverage detailed “The Good O’ Boy Roundup,” an annual, whites-only gathering of law enforcement officers. Organized for 16 years by a former ATF agent, the event had been the scene of several incidents of racist behavior and discrimination. According to the Justice Department’s Inspector General report, when one ATF agent brought two black officers to a Roundup, cops from Florida taunted them, saying “ATF fucks up everything they touch…”
Many people remember the confrontation between federal agents and cult leader David Koresh at his compound outside Waco, Texas in 1993. Though the FBI led the siege and launched the assault that burned the compound to the ground, killing scores of Branch Davidian followers, it was the ATF that began the 51-day standoff. When the ATF attempted to raid the compound on a Sunday morning, a gun battle ensued that killed four agents and five Branch Davidians.
Before Waco, the ATF also had a role in another famous standoff with isolated extremists. In 1992, U.S. Marshals and the FBI tried to arrest Randy Weaver near his home in Ruby Ridge, Idaho after he failed to appear for a court proceeding relating to his arrest by the ATF for selling firearms. The ATF had earlier tried unsuccessfully to recruit Weaver as an informant for its investigation into the nearby Aryan Nations. In the confrontation, a U.S. Marshal was killed, as were Weaver’s wife and son. The incident was seen by anti-government militias and white supremacist groups as an example of the tyranny of the federal government, and it inspired, along with the Waco siege, the bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City by Timothy McVeigh.