ATF at Work
History of the ATF

In its present configuration, the ATF is only 27 years old. In a functional way, however, some of the agency's official responsibilities can be traced back more than 200 years.

The agency's duties to collect alcohol and tobacco taxes, for example, go back to the Revenue Act of 1789. During the Civil War the revenue realized from excise taxes imposed on alcoholic beverages was a significant source of income for the vast federal war effort.

Another major milestone in the organization's long history was America's post World War One attempt to drastically reduce the consumption of alcohol. Under the 18th Amendment to the Constitution, ratified in early 1919, an ATF predecessor agency played a major role in the federal campaign to eliminate the commercial sale of beer, wine and whiskey. Prohibition, however, was extraordinarily controversial and came to an end with the ratification of the 21st Amendment on December 5, 1933.

One of the unfortunate consequences of Prohibition was the development of a number of violent gangs that served up illegal booze to all the Americans who desired it. The turf wars of these gangs was a major factor making the homicide rates of the early 1930s among the highest in the nation's history. (Some experts believe that the crack cocaine gangs of the 1980s made the same contribution to that era's high murder rates.)

In both periods, one result was the passage by Congress of a long series of gun laws beginning with the National Firearms Act of 1934 and continuing through the so-called Brady law of 1993 and the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994.

Long a division of the Internal Revenue Service, the ATF became an independent agency within the Treasury on July 1, 1972.

While ATF agents have won high plaudits for their work in the 1993 terrorist bombing of the New York Trade Center and the 1995 bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City, the agency also has been involved in situations that resulted in negative coverage by the media and sharp criticism from the courts and several Congressional committees. These situations included a raid on a religious cult in Waco, Texas, a botched attempt to arrest a part-time illegal gun dealer in Ruby Ridge, Idaho, and the disclosure in 1996 that for a number of years a handful of ATF agents had taken part in an informal gathering of federal enforcement agents called the Good Old Boys Roundups. All three situations are credited with contributing to a growing feeling of distrust about the government by some Americans, particularly in the western states.

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