The ATF: The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, popularly known as the ATF, is a law enforcement agency within the federal Department of Justice that protects the public from violent criminals and their organizations. The agency is charged with stopping the following criminal acts:

  • illegal use and trafficking of firearms
  • illegal use and storage of explosives
  • arson and bombings, and
  • illegal diversion of alcohol and tobacco products.

The ATF traces its history to Alexander Hamilton and the Whiskey Rebellion. During Prohibition, its agents went after bootleggers. Eliot Ness, the storied Chicago crime fighter, was an ATF agent. More recently, it was involved in the storming of the Branch Davidian cult near Waco, Texas, in 1993; its botched raid resulted in several deaths. And in 2011, the Bureau was implicated in a failed gun-trafficking operation in which its agents allowed guns to slip into Mexico; two were later used in Arizona to kill a federal border agent.

The ATF used to be administered within the US Department of the Treasury, but was transferred to the Department of Justice in 2003. The tax and trade functions of the ATF remain in the Treasury Department.

When the ATF has identified criminal activity, it works with the local United States Attorney to bring the criminals to justice in federal court.

Firearms Enforcement

ATF investigators target armed violent offenders, career criminals, and narcotics traffickers. The ATF also enforces federal firearms laws, by enforcing federal laws on firearms (such as the laws concerning hand grenades; see “Is it legal to own hand grenades?”). A major part of ATF’s work involves enforcing federal requirements for gun purchases, and conducting inspections of gun sellers for compliance with the law. This aspect of the ATF’s work is vital to successful gun traces—when sellers keep proper records of gun sales, tracing the ownership of guns found at crime scenes is more likely to succeed.

For state-by-state information on gun licensing and use, see “Gun Laws.”  

The most frequently asked questions of the ATF concerning gun ownership can be read here, Top 10 Frequently Asked Firearms Questions and Answers.

Arson and Explosives

The ATF also enforces the criminal laws and civil regulations concerning destructive devices (bombs), other explosives, and arson. It investigates crime scenes and utilizes dogs specially trained to detect explosives and residue. ATF agents regularly assist their state counterparts (and sometimes foreign governments). Bomb disposal is a key function.

Alcohol and Tobacco

The detection of alcohol smuggling and contraband cigarette trafficking have long been a part of the ATF’s job. The ATF identifies and denies access to assets and funds used by illegal traffickers and terrorist organizations, and attempts to prevent criminals from infiltrating legitimate businesses.

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