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,
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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