by Tanya Metaksa
The current Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) began its life as the Alcohol Tax Unit (ATU) after the repeal of prohibition in 1933. Their purpose was to stop the illegal sale of alcohol for consumption and ensure the collection of taxes on the newly revived liquor industry. A year later Congress passed the National Firearms Act (NFA) that mandated that all manufacturers, importers, and distributors of so-called “gangster” weapons pay a licensing fee, pay taxes and report sales of those weapons. After the passage of the Federal Firearms Act of 1938, the ATU became involved in firearms law enforcement because the new law required that dealers of firearms and ammunition be required to be registered and taxed when transferring automatic firearms and destructive devices.
For 30 years the ATU was more likely to be involved in liquor law enforcement than firearms law enforcement. It wasn’t until the 1960s when Sen. Tom Dodd began his Senate investigations concerning gun laws that legislation was again introduced to increase firearms regulation. After the assassinations of President John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr., and Presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy, the US Congress passed the 1968 Gun Control Act (GCA68).
The biggest problem with GCA68 is that it placed the newly created Department of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms in the position of being not only the federal department that issued licenses for federally licensed manufacturers and dealers, but also the department that enforced the law. It was a two-headed monster that would quickly become dominated by the enforcement unit.
Congress gave the IRS-ATF the responsibility of writing regulations for implementation of GCA68 and the agency took its time developing those regulations, while the entire firearms industry and its customers became the regulation guinea pigs. In 1970 Assistant Regional Director of the IRS-ATF division, Rex Davis was named the first IRS-ATF Director. That same year Congress passed Title XI of the Organized Crime Control Act of 1970 that expanded ATF’s jurisdiction to include destructive devices, including bombs, mines, grenades and other explosive devices
As investigations of firearms- and explosives-related crimes became a bigger priority within the Treasury Department, the ATF Division became an independent Bureau and Rex Davis became its first director in 1972.
Since most of its original agents were trained to find illegal alcohol manufacturers, they brought that same style of law-enforcement to dealing with firearms manufacturers, dealers and gunowners. As the responsibility of the IRS-ATF division grew, so did the need to hire more agents. Many have alleged these new agents were inexperienced and overzealous.
As a result the agency went looking for gun-toting criminals. They initiated search warrants that were not fully vetted and used criminal informants who were later found to be unreliable. This type of law enforcement led to raids such as the 1971 raid of Kenyon Ballew’s apartment in Silver Spring, MD, in which the former Air Force security policeman was severely injured resulting in being paralyzed for life. There were other victims as well who came forward at a 1979 hearing held by the Subcommittee on Treasury, Postal Service and General Government Committee on Appropriations. At the close of that hearing Sen. Dennis DeConcini (D-AZ) stated, “BATF has moved against honest citizens and criminals with equal vigor.”
That hearing led to the development of a bill that was sponsored by Rep. Harold Volkmer (D-MO) and Sen. James McClure (R-ID). The Volkmer-McClure bill was an attempt to modify GCA68 to keep the federal government from harassing law-abiding gunowners and federally licensed gun dealers. It took over six years for Congress to pass Volkmer-McClure and have it signed into law by President Ronald Reagan on May 19, 1986.
Yet, the passage of Volkmer-McClure was not the panacea that gunowners hoped it would be. ATF was an agency that needed to make its presence known to justify its budgetary needs. It needed easy but visible arrests that would impress the Congressional Committees that controlled its purse strings. In the case of Randy Weaver, ATF wanted him to be a “snitch” against the Aryan Nation. He refused and the ATF’s arrest warrant led to federal marshal’s surrounding his land and killing his son, and later the FBI killing his wife. It was another ATF arrest that went terribly wrong.
Just months later. in February 1993, ATF needed another high profile arrest to tout for their Congressional budget hearings. They arranged to arrest David Koresh, who they believed had fully automatic firearms. But instead of stopping him on the road or in the town of Waco, TX, they decided to do a full-scale military-style surprise raid against Koresh and his followers at the religious community of Mt. Carmel, where they lived. ATF has even planned to make a movie of the raid, under the code name “Showtime.” The raid was a complete disaster. Eighty agents took part resulting in four agents dead and 20 wounded. By the end of the day ATF was removed from Mt. Carmel and the FBI took over.
From its alcohol roots of destroying moonshine stills to its harassing of law abiding citizens ATF’s reputation is anything but stellar. From 1938 to 1968 the ATU had little to do in the enforcement arena. It collected firearms taxes and left the industry and its customers alone. In the last 30 years ATF firearms’ enforcement has led to a lack of trust between the agency and gunowners and many gun dealers. Most gunowners believe it is an agency that creates firearms crimes in order to make arrests.
Perhaps the investigations of Operation Fast and Furious will tell us more.
This is the final chapter in the current Tanya Metaksa historical series on ATF that began nine months ago. Originally a grassroots gun-rights activist, Metaksa previously served as a former executive director of NRA-ILA, as chair of Sportsmen for Reagan in 1980, as chief aide to a US senator, and in several other gun community positions. She and we agreed that with the current Fast & Furious fiasco dominating headlines, we would conclude her current series with this wrap-up of ATF’s early history. However, you can expect to read more diverse future columns as we launch TheGunMag.com in January.