Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., said Monday that the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms has “outlived its usefulness” and should be dissolved.
Specter, who headed a Senate investigation of the 1992 fatal siege at Ruby Ridge, Idaho, said ATF’s role in that controversy and in other disputes such as the 1993 standoff with Branch Davidians at their compound near Waco, Texas, has convinced him the agency should be eliminated.
Specter, who is seeking the Republican presidential nomination, said ATF’s functions in enforcing firearms laws and other criminal statutes should be transferred to the FBI while any other duties could be assigned to other units in the Treasury Department.
“They (ATF) went overboard; they went to extremes,” Specter said, noting that both Ruby Ridge and Waco began with ATF enforcement efforts. He made his remarks in an interview Monday evening and earlier during a campaign stop in Iowa.
But Treasury Secretary Robert E. Rubin made plain he would oppose any abolition effort. “It would be a mistake to pull apart this vital law enforcement agency that effectively fights guns, gangs and explosives,” Rubin said in a statement.
Specter said he particularly was disappointed by ATF’s performance at the Ruby Ridge hearings when Director John Magaw defended the ATF agent who pressed for Weaver’s prosecution on charges of selling two sawed-off shotguns to another ATF informant and then unsuccessfully tried to sign up Weaver as an informant. The senator said the jury that later tried Weaver felt he had been entrapped.
Magaw did denounce circulation of false reports, apparently based on information supplied by an ATF agent, saying Weaver had a criminal record, but Specter said the director was too slow in acknowledging ATF’s faults.
“I don’t know if a ‘mea culpa’ would have changed my mind, but there was none, really,” Specter said.
He said he felt the FBI, by contrast, was more prepared to admit errors at Ruby Ridge, acknowledging mistakes in the rules of engagement “early on,” making changes in the Bureau’s Hostage Rescue Team and issuing new rules of deadly force.
ATF traces its origins to 1791 when the Treasury Department collected a tax on distilled spirits.