Here in the United States, there are a variety of agencies that focus on different aspects of safety and protection for our homeland. Some are easily recognizable, such as the Federal Bureau of Investigation, or FBI, the Central Intelligence Agency, or CIA, and so on. But one of the lesser known agencies, and the one I will be discussing in this research assignment, is Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives, or ATF for short. However, make no mistake that the ATF performs an important function in maintaining safety and security in the United States.
The ATF, started is a federal law enforcement organization within the United States Department of Justice. Formed on July 1st, 1972, its responsibilities include the investigation and prevention of federal offenses involving the unlawful use, manufacture, and possession of firearms and explosives; acts of arson and bombings; and illegal trafficking of alcohol and tobacco products. The ATF also regulates via licensing the sale, possession, and transportation of firearms, ammunition, and explosives in interstate commerce. Many of the ATF’s activities are carried out in conjunction with task forces made up of local and state law enforcement officers. The ATF also operates a unique fire research area, where full-scale mock-ups of criminal arsons can be reconstructed.
The ATF was originally part of the United States Department of Treasury, having been formed in 1886 as the “revenue laboratory” with the Treasury Department’s Bureau of Internal Revenue. When the Volstead Act, which established prohibition in the United States, was repealed in December of 1933, the unit was transferred back to the Department of Treasury, where it became the Alcohol Tax Unit. The ATU included several members from the “Untouchables”, such as Elliot Ness. From 1942 to 1973, the ATU was given responsibility over enforcing federal firearms laws, federal tobacco tax laws, and arson and bombing offenses. In 1968, with the passing of the Gun Control Act, the agency was officially renamed to ATF, or Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms. They were still a division within the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). In 1972 ATF was established as a separate bureau within the Treasury Department. The responsibilities of the ATF division of the IRS were transferred to the new, separate ATF agency, and Rex D. Davis oversaw the transition, officially becoming the bureau’s first director.
In the wake of the terrorist attack on September 11th, 2001, President George W. Bush signed into law the Homeland Security Act of 2002. This law shifted the ATF from the Department of Treasury to the Department of Justice. The agency’s name had once again changed to Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives, but was still referred to as ATF. Additionally, the agency’s duties of collecting tax from alcohol and tobacco was transferred to the newly created Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau. These changes took effect January 24th, 2003.
The ATF employs some of the most advanced methods and techniques related to the regulation and control of firearms in the world. Their Comprehensive Crime Gun Tracing Initiative is the largest operation of its kind in the world. They use a web-based system, known as “e-Trace”, which provides law enforcement agencies with the capability to securely and electronically send and receive trace requests, and conduct trace analysis in real time. Over 2000 agencies use this system, including 33 foreign agencies. ATF also provides investigative support to its partners through the National Integrated Ballistic Information Network (NIBIN), which allows Federal, State, and local law enforcement agencies to image and compare gun crime evidence.
ATF also trains the U.S. Military in evidence recovery procedures after bombings. All ATF agents are trained in post-blast investigation. However, ATF maintains a group of about 150 highly trained explosives experts known as Certified Explosives Specialists (CES). ATF/CES agents are trained experts regarding Improvised Explosives Devices (IED’s), as well as commercial explosives. ATF agents work closely with state and local bomb disposal units within the United States. ATF is considered to be the leading federal agency in most bombings that occur within the United States, with exception to bombings related to international terrorism (which is investigated by the FBI). One of the most notable investigations successfully conducted by the ATF regarding explosives was the tracing of the car used in the World Trade Center bombings of 1993, which led to arrests of the persons involved in the conspiracy.
The hiring process for special agents for the ATF is fiercely competitive, comparable to the selection process of many other specialized agencies. Far less than 5% of applicants, those possessing a 4 year bachelor’s degree and competitive work experience, are hired. ATFs hiring process has a nondisclosure agreement, so the details of the process are not completely revealed. However, applicants must pass a rigorous background check in order to achieve, at minimum, a top secret clearance. In addition, there are multiple written tests, physical fitness tests, interviews and medical exams to even be considered to be selected for training.
ATF special agents must complete a 27 week training program at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center in Glynco, Georgia. It is one of the longest training programs in the United States, far longer than any other training program for any other agency (FBI, DEA, USMS). This program consists of 1 week pre-basic, 12 week basic Criminal Investigator Training Program, and a 14 week Special Agent basic training course. Only then are special agents released to a field office to begin a three year probationary tour.
In conclusion, the ATF is a unique law enforcement agency that protects our communities from violent criminals, criminal organizations, the illegal use and trafficking of firearms, the illegal use and storage of explosives, acts of arson and bombings, acts of terrorism, and the illegal diversion of alcohol and tobacco products. They partner with communities, industries, law enforcement agencies, and public safety agencies to safeguard the public.