ATF at Work
History of the ATF

In one sense, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives is today a brand new agency with a new name, a new mission and a new place in the federal government. In a functional way, however, the place of the agency in the history of United States can be traced back for more than 200 years.

The latest change occurred on January 24, 2003 when the ATF was shifted to the Justice Department from the Treasury Department, and its name was slightly modified with the word "explosives" being tacked on to make explicit one of its important long-standing areas of expertise.

The move to Justice brought to an end a 200-year history in which the agency in 1791 began collecting the nation's first excise tax on distilled spirits. As of January 2003 this responsibility was taken over by the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau within the Treasury Department.

For a long time in American history the absence of the income tax meant that excise taxes were the central way the federal government supported its operations. Even during the Civil War, for example, the revenue realized from the excise taxes was a significant source of revenue for that costly long-term struggle.

Another one of the agency's significant moments in American history involved the national effort immediately after World War One to drastically reduce the consumption of alcohol by all U.S. residents. Under the 18th Amendment to the Constitution, ratified in 19l9, an ATF predecessor agency played a major role in the federal campaign to eliminate the commercial sale of beer, wine and whiskey.

By many accounts, the prohibition experiment was far from a ringing success. One of its more unfortunate consequences was the development of a series of violent gangs that specialized in delivering the now illegal booze to those who craved it. The turf wars of these gangs contributed to making the homicide rates of the early 1930s among the highest in the nation's history. (Some experts believe the gang wars over the distribution of crack cocaine during the 1980s made the same contribution when the murder rates again peaked at historically high levels.

Prohibition came to an end with the ratification of the 21st Amendment on December 5, 1933.

In both the late twenties and early thirties and the late eighties and early nineties the gang violence of these periods played a major role in the passage by Congress of a long series of gun laws, most notably the National Firearms Act of 1934, the so-called Brady law of 1993 and the Violent Crime and Control Act of 1994. The way these laws are enforced now has become a major issue in in American politics.

Like most government institutions, the ATF over the years has had its high and low points. Its investigations of the 1993 terrorist bombing of the New York Trade Center and the 1995 bombing of the federal office building in Oklahoma City, for example, won the agency wide plaudits. On the other hand, the February 28, 1993 ATF raid on a religious cult in Waco, Texas, was later the subject of intense criticism after a thorough investigation by a panel of law enforcement experts.

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