The History, Role and Mission of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms
and Explosives

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (known as ATF or ATFE) was created to protect the citizens of the United States from:

  • Criminal organizations
  • The illegal use and trafficking of firearms
  • The illegal diversion of alcohol and tobacco products
  • Acts of arson and bombings
  • The illegal use and storage of explosives
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The ATFE, a federal law enforcement agency, operates with a budget of $1.15 billion (as of 2012) and has 4,770 employees, 2,442 of whom are ATFE special agents. The employees of the ATFE are said to have dual roles or responsibilities, which include enforcing federal criminal laws and regulating the firearms and explosives industries.

The ATFE, which was established as part of the Department of Justice pursuant to the Homeland Security Act of 2002, has a number of functions, including reducing the risk to public safety caused by firearms trafficking, the criminal possession and use of firearms, criminal organizations and gangs, bombs and explosives, and the criminal use of fire.

The mission of the ATFE also includes improving public safety by ensuring compliance with federal laws and regulations associated with firearms and explosives. They are also the federal law enforcement agency tasked with reducing the loss of tax revenues due to contraband alcohol and tobacco.

The History of the ATF

The significance of the ATF in American history is undeniable; albeit controversial at times. This tax-collecting, enforcement and regulatory arm of the U.S. Department of Justice dates back nearly 200 years in American history.

In 1789, under the new Constitution, a tax on imported spirits was enacted as to offset some of the debt assumed from the Revolutionary War. Although the imports tax was successful by lawmakers’ standards, many taxpayers protested the tax, resulting in the Whiskey Rebellion of 1794. Although this particular tax was eventually abolished, new taxes took its place and, by 1862, Congress created an Office of Internal Revenue that oversaw taxes on distilled spirits and tobacco.

By the end of the decade, the Office of Internal Revenue had developed its own counsel, which triggered the beginnings of the ATFE as it is today. From the formation of the Prohibition Unit in 1920 and its eventual repeal in 1933 through the Constitution’s 21st amendment to the formation of the Alcohol Tax Unit (ATU) in 1934 and the Federal Alcohol Administration (FAA) in 1935, the Treasury was, once again, regulating the alcohol industry. Other dates in history that are significant to the formal creation of the ATFE include:

  • 1938: Federal Firearms Act
  • 1940: The FAA and the ATU merge (The FAA Act is still active today.)
  • 1942: ATU develops enforcement duties of the Firearms Program
  • 1952: Major reorganization results in the dismantling of the Tax Unit, Bureau of Internal Revenue renames the ATU’s new unit the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax Division
  • 1968: Gun Control Act passes
  • 1970: Formation of the Organized Crime Control Act formalized the Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF) Division
  • 1970: Title XI of the Organized Crime Control Act formalized the ATF’s explosive expertise
  • 1972: Considered the birth of today’s ATF; the ATF became an independent bureau on July 1, 1972
  • 1982: Anti-Arson Act of 1982; Congress amended Title XI, making arson a federal crime and giving the ATF responsibility for investigating commercial arson cases across the country
  • 1982: Armed Career Criminal Act of 1982 made armed crimes a federal offense, thereby establishing a mandatory minimum sentence of 15 years for these crimes


Today’s ATFE: Significant Events

Today’s ATFE has been shaped by a number of significant events, the first of which took place in Waco, Texas, on February 28, 1993. ATFE agents, executing warrants on the Branch Davidian compound, were met with heavily armed members of the Branch Davidian cult, thus claiming the lives of four ATFE special agents and resulting in considerable criticism of the ATFE’s actions.

During the same period, the first World Trade Center bombing took place in New York City. On February 26, 1993, six people were killed and more than 1,000 injured. ATFE special agents, responding immediately to the attack, found the VIN number belonging to the rented van that was used by a group of Islamic fundamentalists to carry out the attack.

On April 19, 1995, a truck, filled with explosives, tore through the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. ATFE agents and National Response Teams from across the nation provided assistance and investigative expertise during the investigation.

September 11, 2001, was the most significant moment in history for many federal agencies, including the ATFE, which activated Northeast and Southeast National Response Teams in Washington D.C. and Washington Field Division agents at the Pentagon. The ATFE’s New York Field Division assisted in the investigative efforts at the World Trade Center, while Philadelphia Field Division agents responded to the United Flight 93 crash site in Pennsylvania.

In 2002, the Department of Homeland Security was established and the ATFE was officially transferred to the U.S. Department of Justice in 2003.

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