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Effective January 24, 2003, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco
and Firearms (ATF) was transferred under the Homeland Security bill to the
Department of Justice. The law enforcement functions of ATF under the
Department of the Treasury were transferred to the Department of Justice.
The tax and trade functions of ATF will remain in the Treasury Department
with the new Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau.
In addition, the agency's name was changed to the Bureau of
Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) to reflect it new mission
in the Department of Justice.
History of ATF from Oxford University Press, Inc.
1789 - 1998 U.S.
The U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) is a
tax-collecting, enforcement and regulatory arm of the U.S. Department of
the Treasury. In common with all other members of the executive branch,
ATF's responsibility is established by congressional action. ATF cannot
enact a law, nor can it amend the law. Charged as it is with fiscal
oversight of some of the most controversial topics in Western
civilization, ATF strives to maintain professional neutrality while giving
a 35-to-1 return on every dollar it spends. ATF has the best
cost-to-collection ratio in the federal family.
ATF is the youngest tax-collecting Treasury agency,
separated from the Internal Revenue Service by Treasury Department Order
No. 120-1 (former No. 221), effective 1 July 1972. Notwithstanding, ATF
traces its roots across two hundred years of American history.
In 1789 under the new Constitution, the first Congress
imposed a tax on imported spirits to offset a portion of the Revolutionary
War debt assumed from the states. Administration of duties fell to the
Department of the Treasury, whose Secretary, Alexander Hamilton, had
suggested them. Congressional lawmakers were favorably impressed by the
results. The imports tax was augmented by one on domestic production in
1791. Taxpayers had grumbled over import duties. Some of them greeted the
domestic levy --- as they do today --- with political resistance,
escalating in that early case to the short-lived Whisky Rebellion of 1794.
Both revenue sources survived rebellion --- as they do today. Although
these particular taxes were eventually abolished, similar devices for
revenue came and went as needed until 1862. By Act of 1 July 1862,
Congress created an Office of Internal Revenue within the Treasury
Department, charging the commissioner with collection, among others, of
taxes on distilled spirits and tobacco products that continue, with
amendments, today. Because taxation so often does evoke resistance,
including criminal evasion, during 1863 Congress authorized the hiring by
Internal Revenue of "three detectives to aid in the prevention, detection
and punishment of tax evaders." Tax collecting and enforcement were now
under one roof. Before decade's end, the Office of Internal Revenue had
its own counsel, another component descending in unbroken line to ATF
In 1875 federal investigators broke up the "Whisky Ring", an
association of grain dealers, politicians and revenue agents that had
defrauded the government of millions of dollars in distilled spirits
taxes. Responding to the scandal, Congress undertook the first Civil
Service reform acts, acknowledging formally that effectiveness of law
depends on the quality of its administrators.
The commissioner's annual report for 1877 refers to his
office as the Bureau of Internal Revenue, a title that it retained for the
next seventy-five years. In 1886, a single employee from the Department of
Agriculture came to the Bureau of Internal Revenue under authority of the
Oleomargarine Act to establish a Revenue Laboratory. The first samples
received in the laboratory that 29 December were of butter suspected of
adulteration with oleomargarine. In its second century, ATF's laboratory
staff includes --- but is not limited to --- chemists, document analysts,
latent print specialists, and firearms and toolmark examiners, supported
by its own highly sophisticated facilities at Rockville, Maryland,
Atlanta, Georgia, and Walnut Creek, California. That first chemist would
recognize some aspects of laboratory service today (analysis of alcohol
and tobacco products, for instance) although tools such as chromatography
and electrophoresis might seem magic. There was nothing in 1886 to
foreshadow the Laboratory's sought-after forensic skills in arson,
explosives, and criminal-evidence examination, a resource now available to
law enforcement personnel worldwide.
Ratification of the Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution
in 1919, in combination with the Volstead Prohibition Enforcement Act of
that year, brought to prominence those officers --- 'revenoors' ---
charged with investigating criminal violations of the Internal Revenue
law, including illicit manufacture of liquors, who coalesced by 1920 into
the Prohibition Unit. Evolution of this unit reflects the difficulty of
enforcing a nation-wide ban on "manufacture, sale or transportation of
intoxicating liquors for beverage purposes." Internal Revenue's
orientation has been toward collection throughout its history. Enforcement
efforts, albeit necessary, never came easily. On April Fool's Day, 1927,
Treasury elevated the Prohibition Unit to bureau status within the
department. Congress was impatient with the results. On 1 July 1930
Congress created certain confusion for later historians by transferring
"the penal provisions of the national prohibition act" from Treasury's
Bureau of Prohibition (which then ceased to exist) to the Department of
Justice's new Bureau of Prohibition --- with an important exception:
tax-related and regulatory activities, "the permissive provisions,"
remained at Treasury, under a new Bureau of Industrial Alcohol. The most
illustrious enforcer during that tumultuous era was Eliot Ness, the
"T-man" who toppled Chicago's organized-crime king Al Capone on
The Twenty-first Amendment to the Constitution, repealing
Prohibition, achieved ratification with unanticipated speed by 5 December
1933, catching Congress in recess. As an interim measure to manage a
burgeoning legitimate alcohol industry, by executive order under the
National Industrial Recovery Act, President Franklin Roosevelt established
the Federal Alcohol Control Administration (FACA). The FACA, in
cooperation with the Departments of Agriculture and Treasury, endeavored
to guide wineries and distilleries under a system based on brewers'
voluntary codes of fair competition. The FACA was relieved of its burden
--- and effectively vanished from history --- after just twenty months,
when President Roosevelt in August 1935 signed the Federal Alcohol
Administration (FAA) Act. The new FAA received a firm departmental
assignment: Treasury once more found itself regulating the alcohol
Although Prohibition was officially over, the era's side
effects continued for decades to mold the shape of ATF. On 10 March 1934
Justice's Prohibition enforcement duties folded into the infant Alcohol
Tax Unit (ATU), Bureau of Internal Revenue, Department of the Treasury. At
the same time, the FAA, functioning independently within Treasury, was
carrying forward its mandate to collect data, to establish license and
permit requirements, and define the regulations that ensure an open, fair
marketplace for the alcohol industry and the consumer. In 1940 the FAA as
an Administration merged with the ATU. The FAA Act continues today as one
foundation of ATF's enabling legislation.
National dismay over the weaponry wielded so conspicuously
by organized crime during Prohibition led to passage in 1934 of the
National Firearms Act, followed in four years by the Federal Firearms Act.
The newly regulated articles might be firearms, but taxes were involved as
ever. The Miscellaneous Tax Unit, Bureau of Internal Revenue, collected
the fees. In 1942 enforcement duties for the "Firearms Program" fell to
the ATU, which was accustomed to managing controversial industries. In a
major Internal Revenue reorganization of 1952, the nearly-century-old
Miscellaneous Tax Unit was dismantled. Its firearms and tobacco tax
responsibilities went to the ATU. The Bureau of Internal Revenue became
the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) we know today. Acknowledging a portion
of ATU's new burden, IRS renamed it the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax Division.
This incarnation lasted until 1968 passage of the Gun Control Act, which
gave to the laboratory, among other things, responsibility for explosives.
The division title shifted to Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF)
Division. Title XI of the Organized Crime Control Act in 1970 (Title XI)
formalized ATF Division explosives expertise. In the same year, moved by a
growing perception that the IRS's revenue-collecting bias did not reflect
ATF Division's enforcement skills, overtures began toward ATF
Treasury Department Order No. 120-1 (originally No. 221),
effective 1 July 1972, transferred to ATF from IRS those functions, powers
and duties related to alcohol, tobacco, firearms, and explosives. (During
the mid-1970s at Treasury's direction ATF briefly assumed responsibility
for wagering laws; that task returned to the IRS in less than 3 years.)
Throughout the 1970s, based on determination that accelerants used in
arson, when explosions might occur, meet Title XI's definition of
explosives, ATF began demonstrating in court its ability to prove arson.
In the Anti-Arson Act of 1982, Congress amended Title XI to make it clear
that arson is a federal crime, giving ATF responsibility for investigating
commercial arson nationwide.
ATF continues a mutually beneficial interface with its
legitimate industries, while refining unique enforcement skills. With
developments such as the state-of-the-art Integrated Ballistic
Identification System (a computerized matching program for weapons and the
ammunition fired from them), accelerant- and explosives/weapons-detection
canines, and the Gang Resistance Education and Training (GREAT) program
(which gives children the tools to resist membership in violent gangs),
ATF leads and supports law enforcement internationally.
In its first quarter-century ATF has had only 4 Directors:
Rex Davis, G.R. Dickerson, Stephen Higgins, and John Magaw. The director
is appointed by the secretary of the Treasury, and reports to the under
secretary (enforcement). ATF headquarters are in Washington, D.C.,
although most personnel and many ATF operations are decentralized
throughout the country, with a few stations overseas. ATF agents,
inspectors, and support staff are involved in investigating some of the
most violent crimes in society, in regulating some of the most important
and sensitive industries in America, and in collecting over $13 billion in
annual revenue. ATF is a young federal agency, yet it is heir to the whole
experience and proud tradition of "these United States."
Annual Report of the Commissioner of
Industrial Alcohol. Washington, D.C., 1931 - 1933.
of the Commissioner of Internal Revenue. Washington, D.C., 1863 -
Annual Report of the Commissioner of Prohibition.
Washington, D.C., 1927 - 1930.
ATF Facts - History. Washington,
A Report on The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms;
Its History, Progress and Programs. Washington, D.C., 1995.
United States Government Manual, 1994/1995, Washington, D.C.,
1994. See pp. 496-498.
HISTORICAL GUIDE TO THE U.S. GOVERNMENT, edited by George T. Kurian.
Copyright © 1998 by Oxford University Press, Inc. Used by kind permission
of Oxford University Press, Inc.