Part 1: “A long colorful history”
by Tanya K Metaksa
The BATF is not your friend
Someone asked me the other day, “What’s with the BATF? We know there are enough criminals getting guns illegally for them to arrest dozens each day; why do they focus on the law-abiding dealers and gunowners, while ignoring those bad guys?”
This series on BATF and their relationship with the firearms industry and their customers is an attempt to answer that question. The answer begins with this statement, “The BATF is not your friend.”
Before there was a Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (BATF) there was the “Revenue Laboratory” within the Bureau of Internal Revenue at the United States Department of the Treasury. Then came prohibition. After the US Congress in all its wisdom passed the Volstead Act in 1917, which was then ratified as the 18th Amendment to the Constitution on Jan. 16, 1919, the employees of the Bureau of Internal Revenue became the enforcers of prohibition.
In 1933 prohibition was repealed. Alcohol enforcement and revenue duties were passed onto the newly established Alcohol Tax Unit (ATU) within the Bureau of Internal Revenue, Treasury Department. A year later in response to the carnage caused by the mobsters using fully automatic weapons during prohibition Congress passed the National Firearms Act (NFA) and the ATU was also given the task of enforcing that law. The NFA required firearms, which met the law’s definitions of “gangster weapons” or “destructive devices,” were to be registered with the federal government and were subject to a federal ownership tax that was also to be levied on the sale and transfer of such weapons.
In the 1950s the Bureau of Internal Revenue became the IRS and the ATU was renamed the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax Division. It still was responsible for enforcing the NFA and collecting the firearms tax. Even with those relatively simple tasks, the ATU was not beloved by American gun collectors because their ability to determine which guns met the NFA criteria was often questioned and found to be in error.
After President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in November 1963, many in the Congress began to beat the drum for new stricter gun control legislation. President Kennedy had been shot by Lee Harvey Oswald with a 6.5 x 52mm Italian Carcano M91/38 bolt-action rifle that Oswald had purchased by mail order under an alias. Sen. Thomas Dodd (D-CT) was one of the foremost and earliest supporters of legislation not only to stop the mail order sale of firearms but to control the sale and possession of countless other guns.
During testimony before the House Ways and Means Committee in July 1965, when the Congress was debating Dodd’s bill, S.1592, Leon C. Jackson, a specialist in early American firearms, testified about the ATU’s inability to properly categorize antique weapons. His testimony stated, “In another case in Pennsylvania, photographs of firearms, all antiques, were submitted to the Department...Two pictures of the same gun, a flintlock blunderbus, approximately 200 years old, were submitted, taken from opposite sides of the weapon. The Department ruling was that it must be registered on one side, but was not subject to registration on the other.” Another ATU case was brought to the Committee’s attention by George Whittington, an attorney and past president of the NRA. He described the case where ATU classified “palm pistols” as “gadget devices” under the 1934 law and were seized from a California dealer. At considerable cost the dealer was forced to appeal to the US District Court in order to get his misclassified firearms returned.
Although S.1592 did not pass, the further assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. in April 1968 and Sen. Robert F. Kennedy (D-NY) in June 1968 propelled the passage of the 1968 Gun Control under the presidency of Lyndon Johnson. After the passage of the 1970 Organized Crime Act all the IRS duties and powers concerning alcohol, tobacco, firearms and explosives were included in the new Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (BATF).
In the aftermath of the assassinations and the hysteria that surrounded the entire concept of firearms ownership it was understandable that the new BATF was overly sensitive to statements that called for even stricter controls on all guns. In 1971 the National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence called for both the banning of the private possession of handguns and the registration of all firearms. The BATF’s mission was to ensure that gun ownership was rigorously monitored and they took that mandate seriously.
One of the major flaws in the organization of the BATF is that the agency is required to do both the regulation of the legal commerce in the firearms industry as well enforce the violations of law that happen when the products produced by these industries are used or transferred illegally. Thus, as gunowners we see the “enforcement” side of the agency uses the “regulatory” side to add new ways to limit the industries that it regulates. Additionally the enforcers tell the regulators how to “trap” the operators of those businesses and their clients. This easily becomes a “Catch-22” situation for both the businesses and the buyers of the firearms produced by this closely regulated industry.
In the next installment we examine how the BATF took its mandate so seriously that people’s lives were jeopardized and a Congressional Committee finally stood up for the victims.
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