The official history of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms conjures up images of the Roaring ‘20s, when federal agents like Eliot Ness went after bootleggers and mobsters like Al Capone.
ATF special agents are the successors to those legendary Untouchables, says an ATF history.
But today’s ATF agents, who are responsible for enforcing federal handgun laws and regulations, also have another heritage, that of things gone terribly wrong during the bureau’s 1989 pursuit of white separatist Randy Weaver and its 1993 raid on the Branch Davidian complex in Waco, Texas.
Despite efforts to reform the agency and reshape its image, the ATF has had a hard time shaking descriptions like “beleaguered” and “hapless” that cropped up during those episodes.
Perhaps the most brutal attack came from the National Rifle Association. Frustrated with what it saw as overzealous enforcement of gun laws, the NRA in a 1995 fund-raising letter called ATF agents “jack-booted thugs.” The gun group later apologized for the remark.
A Senate investigation into the deadly confrontation between federal agents and Weaver at Ruby Ridge, Idaho, found that a zealous ATF informant had virtually entrapped Weaver into selling two illegal sawed-off shotguns in 1989. That deal eventually led to the clash with Weaver, in which his wife and son were killed.
The Senate report also accused the ATF of wrongly identifying Weaver as an ex-convict and suspected bank robber, leading marshals and FBI agents to believe they were up against a dangerous fanatic.
At Waco, four ATF agents and six cult members died during the botched initial raid on the Branch Davidian compound. The FBI took over the ensuing 51-day standoff, which ended in a deadly fire that killed cult leader David Koresh and 80 of his followers.
A tough 501-page report on the incident by the Treasury Department, which oversees the ATF, found “disturbing evidence of flawed decision-making, inadequate intelligence gathering, miscommunication, supervisory failures, and deliberately misleading post-raid statements about the raid and the raid plan by certain ATF supervisors.” The two events prompted congressional hearings, agency investigations and calls for change, from internal reforms to dissolving the bureau.
To add to its troubles, ATF employees were among the federal agents cited last year for attending “Good O’ Boy Roundups” in eastern Tennessee that included drunkenness and racist behavior.
On the plus side, the agency played a key role in the investigations into the bombings of the World Trade Center in New York in 1993 and of the Oklahoma City federal building in 1995.
The ATF’s 3,936 employees are responsible for a mix of tax collection, regulation and law enforcement, carrying out all federal laws on alcohol, tobacco, firearms, explosives and arson. That means a wide range of work, from issuing licenses to gun dealers to collecting taxes on cigarettes, plus assisting state and local law enforcement officials.
ATF agents go through the same recruiting process as other law enforcement officers who work under the Treasury Department, including the Customs Service, the Internal Revenue Service and the Secret Service, according to William J. Vizzard, a 27-year veteran of the ATF who now teaches at California State University, Sacramento.
While the FBI and the Drug Enforcement Administration agents are recruited through a different process, Vizzard said that, comparing the average new ATF agent with the average new FBI agent, “they look very much the same.
“They are usually college graduates, sometimes with law enforcement experience,” Vizzard said.
Raymond W. Kelly, under secretary for enforcement at the Treasury Department, said the agency has improved in recent years, in large part because it has focused on what he calls its “core mission” - assisting state and local officials with firearms traces and on investigating large scale gun-running.
Robert J. Louden, director of the Criminal Justice Center at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, said the agency has worked hard to improve its planning, training and supervision since Waco and Ruby Ridge.
While nearly all of the roughly 70 federal agencies with some law enforcement powers could come into contact with guns as they pursue an investigation, “They know they can go to ATF and ATF has the ability, in databases, investigative know-how and motivation, to trace the firearms for them,” Loudon said.
But Vizzard said the bureau falls short when it comes to keeping firearms out of the wrong hands.
He blames that problem on the federal firearms laws the ATF has to enforce, which limit the records that firearms dealers are required to keep.
Vizzard, author of “In the Crossfire: A Political History of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms,” said there’s another problem that muddies the water for the ATF. Unlike the Drug Enforcement Agency, whose agents go after contraband and the people who buy and sell it, the ATF is trying to regulate illegal dealings with a legal commodity.
“There’s no easy means of figuring out who the crooks are,” Vizzard said.
In its firearms work, the ATF is in the awkward position of regulating the industry, while at the same time relying on gun manufacturers and dealers for information about weapons used in crime.
Kelly, a former New York City police commissioner, sees the combination of enforcement and regulatory roles as a benefit. “It gives the enforcement (officials) more knowledge of the specifics and intricacies of the particular industry,” he said.
Jack C. Adkins, director of operations at the American Shooting Sports Council, which includes most major firearms manufacturers, distributors and retailers, said the gun industry has developed a good working relationship with the agency over the past several years.
“There’s been a more open-door policy and an exchange of ideas and information and a willingness to work together on things,” Adkins said.
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