In 1972, the ATF was officially established as an independent bureau within the Treasury Department on July 1, 1972, this transferred the responsibilities of the ATF division of the IRS to the new Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms. Rex D. Davis oversaw the transition, becoming the bureau’s first director, having headed the division since 1970. During his tenure, Davis shepherded the organization into a new era where federal firearms and explosives laws addressing violent crime became the primary mission of the agency. However, taxation and other alcohol issues remained priorities as ATF collected billions of dollars in alcohol and tobacco taxes, and undertook major revisions of the federal wine labeling regulations relating to use of appellations of origin and varietal designations on wine labels.
The current incarnation of the ATF was not formally instituted until 2003, when “and explosives” was added to the name, the bureau was shifted from the Treasury Department to the Justice Department, and its revenue-collection and alcohol-production regulatory functions were transferred to the new Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB). Although the roots of the ATF “can be traced back to 1791 when the first tax on distilled spirits was implemented by the new secretary to the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton,” its real predecessor is the Bureau of Prohibition established in 1920. After the repeal of the Volstead Act in 1933, the bureau was called the Alcohol Tax Unit. It was christened the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms in 1972.
According to the latest ATF “Fact Sheet,”
ATF is a unique law enforcement agency in the United States Department of Justice that protects our communities from violent criminals, criminal organizations, the illegal use and trafficking of firearms, the illegal use and storage of explosives, acts of arson and bombings, acts of terrorism, and the illegal diversion of alcohol and tobacco products. The men and women of ATF perform the dual responsibilities of enforcing federal criminal laws and regulating the firearms and explosives industries.
The ATF has about 5000 employees and a budget of over $1 billion. That is 5000 employees too many and $1 billion too much.
The ATF should be abolished, but not because of any political concerns or because any of its operations have resulted in “a string of mistakes and failures.” The regulation of alcohol, tobacco, firearms, or explosives is simply not a legitimate function of government. Any legitimate law-enforcement function of the ATF could certainly be handled by another agency under the umbrella of the Justice Department. But even then, the federal government has thousands of federal crimes too many. Congress and the federal agencies it has created have federalized a host of ordinary street crimes already covered by state criminal codes.