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The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms is the only thing standing between America and the combined menace of tax-dodging bootleggers, greedy cigarette smugglers, and unscrupulous gun dealers—pretty much your scum of the earth.

Presumably the ATF also has the secret authority to enforce state laws regarding child abuse and statutory rape, because otherwise the raid they mounted on the Branch Davidian compound in Waco was just overkill. If somebody underpays their firearm taxes, you just send them a bill. If they still don't pay, you put a lien on their property. It's that simple. No sense in staging a tactical operation when a couple of repo men and the local sheriff would be more than sufficient.

Today's ATF is equal parts regulatory agency, tax assessor, and weekend SWAT team. Without them, the federal government would be unable to collect billions of dollars in excise taxes on cigarettes, liquor, and guns. Or stage poorly-planned raids on fortified cult compounds out in the sticks.

In 1982, the Senate Subcommittee on the Constitution determined that the ATF had developed an unfortunate history of

conduct which borders on the criminal... Enforcement tactics made possible by current firearms laws are constitutionally, legally and practically reprehensible... Approximately 75 percent of BATF gun prosecutions were aimed at ordinary citizens who had neither criminal intent nor knowledge, but were enticed by agents into unknowing technical violations.


Prohibition had been something of a tradeoff. On the one hand, the nation did greatly cut back on its alcohol consumption. On the other hand, the experiment gave rise to the Mafia. So it's sort of a judgment call on whether it was worth the price.

The forerunner of the ATF, called the Alcohol Tax Unit, was founded in 1934. The ATU regulated and taxed an industry which had only just emerged out from under the long national nightmare of Prohibition.

The arch-nemesis of the ATU was the moonshiner, who defended his still using all necessary means. (It might help to think of a moonshine still as the methamphetamine lab of its day.) If the guns and boobytraps didn't stop them, there was always the chance that the still itself would just happen to explode when the Feds got too close.

Today it's the ATF who have to ensure that those miniature stills featured in the in-flight luxury catalogs really are for entertainment purposes only.


The ATU was given the authority to collect tobacco taxes in 1951, prompting the agency to be rechristened The Alcohol and Tobacco Tax Division.

In 1990, the average tax on a pack of cigarettes was 25 cents. Ten years later it was 45 cents. As tobacco excise taxes grew, so did the incentive for smugglers. Today, one carton of cigarettes purchased in North Carolina can be smuggled into Manhattan for a $30 profit.

Newspapers in 2002 reported that terrorist organizations were profiting from tobacco smuggling, once the exclusive domain of organized crime. So how come we haven't seen any anti-terrorism public service announcements blaming tobacco smokers for the World Trade Center attacks? You just know there have gotta be some in the works.


After alcohol and tobacco, America's next favorite guilty pleasure is probably guns. (Followed by television, pornography, and fast food.)

The ATF's crackdown on gun sales began with the passage of The Gun Control Act of 1968. This law required the manufacturers, importers, and resellers of firearms to hold a federal license in order to conduct business. In the intervening years, new legislation has progressively impinged the rights of gun enthusiasts and dealers alike.

Evidently in the belief that the legal gun trade should be stifled as much as possible, the ATF has spearheaded a multipronged approach. They attack the demand side through waiting periods and background checks for the purchasers, as well as pressure the supply side through onerous rules and regulations placed on the retailers.

It was the violation of rules governing the sales of firearms that the ATF headed off to Ruby Ridge and Waco. At Ruby Ridge, it was the ATF who entrapped Randy Weaver into selling an informant two shotguns with sawn-off barrels.

Stung by a persistent negative image, in January 2003 the ATF distanced itself from the controversies of the past by effecting a name change. It became known thereafter as "The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives." And so, a new day has begun in America.


6 Apr 1998 Discussing the assault weapons ban, President Bill Clinton observes: "As everyone knows, you don't need an Uzi to go deer hunting. You don't need an AK-47 to go skeet shooting."

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