The Embattled Past of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms

The Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) is the government agency charged with enforcing federal firearms laws. Unlike other regulatory agencies, however, its powers are limited to licensing dealers, manufacturers and importers and monitoring compliance with the few federal controls that do exist.

Until recently, the ATF exhibited a distinct lack of regulatory zeal. Much of this can be traced to its near dismantlement in the early 1980s, which was exacerbated by 12 years of Republican administrations that–with their pro-gun allies–viewed the agency as something of an embarrassment.

With the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, the NRA launched an all-out campaign to have the ATF abolished. The centerpiece of the effort was an NRA film titled It Can’t Happen Here, which painted a picture of the ATF as a gang of jackboots. In the film, Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., an NRA board member, charged that “if I were to select a jackbooted group of fascists who are perhaps as large a danger to American society as I could pick today, I would pick BATF. They are a shame and a disgrace to our country.”

In 1981, the Reagan administration announced that the ATF would be disbanded, its firearms-enforcement activities curtailed and transferred to other agencies. With no constituency among the public and virtually friendless on Capitol Hill, the ATF appeared doomed. Bizarrely enough, it was rescued at the 11th hour by the NRA after the organization discovered that firearms enforcement would be shifted to the Secret Service. Clearly, it was far better to have a cowed ATF to kick around than to risk crossing swords with the well-respected lawmen who protect the president.

The result of this was the development of a bureaucratic culture at the ATF that strove to avoid controversy and that–when faced with enforcing regulations–almost always took the most pro-industry interpretation possible. Although the bureau was the focus of NRA and industry ire, few Americans knew much about it until its failed raid on the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, in February 1994. As a result of that incident, a clean sweep of the ATF’s Washington leadership, including Director Stephen Higgins, occurred.

With a new director and with support from the Clinton administration, the ATF has begun to shake off the tarnish of Waco and emerge from its 12-year regulatory coma. Despite it history, the ATF has the necessary expertise and–with strong leadership and administration support–the will to effectively regulate the firearms industry if granted appropriate powers.

Already the agency has begun to address problems that festered under prior administrations. In August 1993, Clinton issued an executive order directing the agency to be more aggressive in limiting Federal Firearms License to those legitimately engaged in the business. Currently, the country has more gun dealers than gas stations. This is the direct result of the license’s historically low cost ($30 for three years) and easy availability (the ATF’s background checks were once so lax that the agency even issued licenses to dogs).

The ATF estimates that only 20 percent of the country’s 245,000 gun dealers actually operate businesses such as gun stores or sporting-goods outlets. The remainder are “kitchen-table” dealers, operating out of their homes-often in violation of local and state business, zoning and firearms laws. Of these nearly 200,000 dealers, an unknown number are involved in criminal gun trafficking. Four months after the president’s directive, the Federal Firearms License fee was raised to $200 for three years in a last-minute addition to the Brady bill. And in January, Treasury Secretary Lloyd Bentsen announced plans to push for reform of the ATF’s licensing procedures, including an increase in the annual licensing fee to $600.