The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF) is a relatively young law enforcement organization, having been created formally in 1972. Yet, measured by the federal laws related to the regulation and taxing of alcohol, tobacco, and firearms the laws ATF now enforces the history of the bureau's duties and responsibilities stretches across the full two centuries of American history. As early as 1791, revenue acts taxed both alcohol and tobacco and created the offices of tax inspector, collector, and supervisor. During the next century, the offices changed names as frequently as the tax rates changed, but the federal interest in raising revenues from alcohol and tobacco remained strong. Indeed, the formal organization of an independent bureau within the Department of Treasury specializing in alcohol, tobacco, and firearms law enforcement belatedly recognized the distinct need for such an agency.
After the Civil War, revenue agents battled moonshiners throughout the South in some of the bloodiest opposition ever to federal law enforcement. Revenue agents and deputy U.S. marshals by the score were killed as they roamed the hills and hollows searching out illicit stills. Prohibition changed the government's focus from taxing whiskey to banning it, yet the revenue agent's job remained as dangerous. After experimenting in social adjustment a dozen years, Prohibition was rescinded. Spawned by the 1933 repeal of Prohibition, the Alcohol Tax Unit was established as a tax-collecting branch within the Internal Revenue Service (IRS).
Continued concern over the violent, organized mobs that plagued the major cities compelled the federal government to try to curb the gangsters' ability to arm themselves. Rather than ban outright the purchase of machineguns and sawed-off shotguns the weapons of choice for the mobsters Congress in 1934 simply imposed a tax those weapons. Paying the tax required registering the weapon. The registration requirement was intended to discourage ownership of such weapons without outlawing them. No self-respecting gangster would want to register, much less pay the tax, on his Tommygun. Their evasion of the tax gave the government another legal tool to use in arresting the gangsters and breaking up the mobs.
Because it was a tax rather than a prohibition, it fell to Treasury to enforce the law as part of Treasury's role in collecting all funds due the government. Within Treasury, the Alcohol Tax Unit seemed the logical branch to enforce the new law. Registering and taxing stills required many of the same procedures and investigatory talents that would be needed to register and tax weapons. In the end, the new assignment proved comparatively easy. The unit was not overwhelmed with registrations nor by the 1940s were the investigations into evasions of the tax very time-consuming. As the gangsters declined in number and power, so did their use of machineguns and sawed-off shotguns. Enforcing the alcohol taxes again occupied most of the unit's attention.
In 1951, the Alcohol Tax Unit began enforcing federal taxes on tobacco, thus prompting a name change in 1952 to the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax Division. Once again, the logic seemed to be that collecting the tax on tobacco closely resembled the work necessary to collect the tax on alcohol, machineguns, and sawed-off shotguns. The 1968 passage of the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act and the Gun Control Act expanded the IRS unit's jurisdiction to the criminal use of explosives and bombs. The new laws also defined specific federal offenses involving firearms, including transportation across state lines and use in organized crimes. In recognition of this new enforcement responsibility, the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax Division changed its name to the Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms Division (ATFD). Two years later, Congress passed the Explosives Control Act defining certain bombings and acts of arson as federal crimes. It assigned jurisdiction for enforcing this new law to ATFD.
With these expanded responsibilities, the Treasury Department on July 1, 1972 created the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms under the general oversight of the Assistant Secretary of the Treasury for Enforcement, Tariffs and Trade, and Operations. For the past twenty-one years, ATF has enforced the collection of federal taxes on alcohol and tobacco and the federal controls and regulations on firearms, with particular attention to their use by criminals. Although on its face the bureau seems a discordant collection of separate duties, the techniques for enforcing the taxes and ferreting out the illicit products, whether cases of whiskey, cartons of cigarettes, crates of automatic weapons, or containers of bombs, are strikingly similar.
Subsequent laws have expanded ATF's jurisdiction. The 1976 Arms Export Control Act focused the bureau's attention on international gun smuggling. The 1982 Anti-Arson Act gave ATF authority to investigate the destruction of property by fire as well as by explosives. Increased taxes on cigarettes and alcohol, and enhanced regulatory measures such as the 1978 Contraband Cigarette Act, have also enhanced the bureau's responsibility to ensure the government receives its lawful taxes.
The bureau has been an effective force in law enforcement. Supplies of illicit alcohol and smuggled tobacco have steadily decreased, and tax revenues have risen. During 1991, for example, ATF collected $7.7 billion in alcohol taxes and $4.8 billion in tobacco taxes.
ATF agents have also focused on tracking down armed career criminals and criminal gang members. Investigations in Florida resulted in the arrest of 45 Warlock motorcycle gang members in 1991. Members of the Gullymen Posse, a gang of Jamaican drug dealers known for its propensity to commit murder, were arrested in New York by ATF agents in January 1991. Similarly, an ATF investigation into the activities of the Born to Kill gang culminated in the arrest of a dozen gang members in August 1991. Sixteen members of the San Diego chapter of the Hells Angels were convicted in 1992. As a result of these and similar investigations, ATF has become the nation's principal repository for gang-related information and intelligence. The bureau has also earned an excellent reputation for working well with federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies.
ATF agents also specialize in identifying anonymous bombers by their "signature" habits in making bombs. For example, in 1990, the assassin of Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Robert Vance was ultimately identified by ATF agents who recognized the way the bomb was constructed. Similarly, in the midst of the tragedy in Waco, Texas, ATF agents investigating the World Trade Center bombing helped to identify the van that was used to hold the bomb. This early identification led FBI agents to the rental car company and thereafter to arrests of the terrorists before they could escape the country.
The bureau has developed considerable expertise in arson investigations. At the request of the National Fire Protection Agency, ATF began developing nationwide standards for fire investigators. The State Department's Diplomatic Security Service invited ATF to develop a protocol establishing an International Response Team of investigators trained to search blast scenes involving U.S. property abroad. Despite a rather eclectic array of duties, ATF has succeeded in developing considerable expertise in each area of its enforcement responsibilities.
The raid by ATF agents on the Branch Davidian compound resulted from its enforcement of contemporary federal firearms laws. In a larger sense, however, the raid fit within an historic, well-established and well-defended government interest in prohibiting and breaking up all organized groups that sought to arm or fortify themselves. The 1934 law taxing weapons was only the first time the federal government addressed private ownership of weapons; it was not the first federal effort to control firearms. From its earliest formation, the federal government has actively suppressed any effort by disgruntled or rebellious citizens to coalesce into an armed group, however small the group, petty its complaint, or grandiose its ambition. The collection of large arsenals by organized groups lent itself, ultimately, to the violent use of those weapons against the government itself or portions of its citizenry. Indeed, federal agents who tried to disband the groups frequently became the targets.
The discomfort over armed organizations predated the Constitution. The outbreak of what became known as Shays' Rebellion in 1786 gave added urgency to the establishment of a strong national government. During the rebellion, hundreds of angry Massachusetts farmers, most veterans of the Revolution and facing foreclosures on their farms, banded together to keep the courts from issuing any executions. Calling themselves Regulators, the farmers quickly organized into a small army. Significantly, their first foray was to capture the arsenal at Spring field. Although the Regulators failed, the specter survived. Five months, delegates from each of the thirteen states met in Philadelphia to design a new experiment in government.
The lesson of Shays' Rebellion was not forgotten, even after the new government was formed. In 1792, Congress passed a law empowering the president to call out the state militias to suppress insurrections if either an associate justice of the Supreme Court or a local district court judge certified that opposition to the laws was beyond the powers of the civil authority to suppress. Ironically, the first occasion to resort to that law grew out of the violent, organized, and armed resistance to the federal government's whiskey tax. Thus, two of the duties that ATF would later inherent enforcing alcohol taxes and controlling firearms combusted in 1794 into the Whiskey Rebellion, the first violent opposition to the new federal government.(1)
Across the next century, succeeding presidents had sporadic, though no less fearsome, occasion to dispatch the Army and the state militias to suppress various outbreaks of armed opposition to federal laws, taxes, and interests. In 1799, Fries Rebellion against a federal tax on houses forced President John Adams to muster the militia. Fugitive slave rescues during the 1850s prompted the government to call out the military. Organized resistance in Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, New York, Ohio, and Wisconsin raised a troublesome specter. "The main opposition," President Millard Fillmore warned Congress in December 1851, "is aimed against the Constitution itself." At the end of the decade, John Brown's ill-fated raid on Harper's Ferry, Virginia, sparked the government to decisive action. Brown chose Harper's Ferry because of the federal arsenal there. His intent was to distribute the weapons among Southern slaves and lead them in revolt for their freedom. Federal troops, however, thwarted the plan.(2)
After the Civil War, the federal government battled unrepentant Southerners to protect the rights of the freedmen. Nonetheless, federal officials acted only after the innumerable Klan-style attacks were finally perceived as organized. "Outrages of various descriptions," Attorney General George Williams advised southern U.S. Attorneys and Marshals in 1874, "and in some cases atrocious murders have been committed in your district by bodies of armed men, sometimes in disguise and with the view it is believed of overawing and intimidating peaceable and law abiding citizens and depriving them of the rights guaranteed to them by the Constitution and laws of the United States." The attorney general ordered his attorneys and marshals "to detect, expose, arrest, and punish the perpetrators of these crimes."(3)
Throughout the western territories and along the Mexican border, the federal government found occasional need to suppress armed bands of outlaws, ganged together to steal cattle or rob the mails. General William Tecumseh Sherman, sent to the Arizona border in April 1882 to investigate the outlaw troubles there, advised President Chester A. Arthur that "the Civil Officers have not sufficient forces to make arrests, to hold prisoners for trial or punish when convicted." The President promptly proclaimed on May 31 that the areas plagued by the outlaws were in a state of rebellion.(4)
The federal government looked no more kindly on the labor strikes that broke out in the closing years of the nineteenth century and the opening years of the twentieth. What seemed so dangerous about events such as the 1894 Pullman strike was not just the disruption of the mails, which was the legal basis on which the government relied to break the strike, but the fact that the mails were being violently disrupted by organized groups. "We have been brought to the ragged edge of anarchy," Attorney General Richard Olney frantically explained when he ordered that the trains be kept running. Eventually, Eugene Debs and his colleagues in the American Railway Union, which took the lead in the strike, were indicted and convicted. Once again, it was the volatile mixture of violence and organization combinations determined difficult to suppress that evoked the full power of the federal government.(5)
The passage of the National Firearms Act of 1934, the first federal effort to control private ownership of firearms, grew out of this historic fear of armed organizations. The various collections of gangsters that proliferated during Prohibition were the true targets of the law, which required a tax and registration on the sale of their weapons of choice machineguns and sawed-off shotguns. Subsequent federal firearms laws have been of a piece. Other than the 1968 ban on mail-order sales, which was in direct, though delayed, response to the assassination of President Kennedy, federal gun laws have typically been concerned with the weapons of considerable destructive power generally preferred by organized groups bombs, machineguns, and automatic weapons.
In recent times, the federal government has shown itself even less patient with armed groups than it had historically. Radical extremists of both the Right and the Left have been pursued aggressively once they began breaking the law. For instance, after the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA) launched its self-styled "people's war" by kidnapping newspaper heiress Patty Hearst and committing a number of daring bankrobberies, the federal government dedicated its full resources to tracking the group down. Within approximately three months, FBI agents and Los Angeles police closed in on the group at a house just outside what was then known as Watts. During an intense gun battle and fire, every member of the SLA in the house was killed.(6)
Gordon Kahl, who stood at the opposite end of the political spectrum from the SLA, met a similar end. Kahl belonged to the Posse Comitatus which refused to recognize the authority of any government above the county level. Accordingly, Kahl consistently refused to pay his federal taxes, even after he served time in prison for not doing so. When U.S. Marshals attempted to arrest him for violating the terms of his probation, Kahl killed two of them. For the next five months, Kahl hid among his friends and sympathizers until FBI agents located him in a farmhouse just outside Smithville, Arkansas. After refusing to surrender, Kahl was killed, and the farmhouse was burned down.(7)
Robert Matthews, the head of a group of right-wing fanatics known as the Order, embraced many of Kahl's beliefs. Unlike Kahl, whose resistance was essentially passive until the marshals tried to arrest him, Matthews and the Order launched an aggressive private war against the country. Like the SLA, the Order committed a series of bank and armored car robberies, netting $3.6 million in one heist alone. The Order also assassinated Alan Berg, a radio talk show host in Denver, Colorado. The FBI began an equally aggressive pursuit. After a brief, violent skirmish in Idaho and another in Portland, Oregon, FBI agents finally closed in on Matthews hiding out among three adjoining houses on Whidbey Island, some fifty miles north of Seattle. After negotiating his surrender for two days, Matthews began firing on an FBI Hostage Response Team that attempted to enter the house. Protected by a full suit of body armor, Matthews ran from the first floor to the second floor firing automatic weapons. The FBI dropped a magnesium flare from a helicopter. The flare landed on the roof of the house and burned through it to the room where Matthews had stored his ammunition and explosives. These ignited, setting off a roaring, exploding fire that consumed [...](8)
A year later, in the spring of 1985, ATF collected considerable evidence that an 80-member group styling itself the Covenant of the Sword and the Arm of the Lord (CSA) had stockpiled a large arsenal at its fortified compound in Arkansas. The group had collected over 150 firearms, (including 35 machineguns), two anti-personnel mines, three anti-aircraft rockets, 50 pounds of military plastic explosives, 300 blasting caps, 2,000 feet of detonating cord, and around 100 explosive devices. CSA had also stockpiled food, water, and supplies.
ATF led the assault on the CSA compound on April 20, 1985. CSA members retreated farther into the compound, barricading themselves behind their defenses. The agents set up a siege perimeter and settled in to wait. The group used the wait to destroy many of the weapons (and hence evidence) illegally obtained. Negotiators from the FBI arrived and began the tedious, frustrating process of talking the group out. Three days later, on April 22, 1985, James D. Ellison and the 75 members of the CSA surrendered.(9)
As both history and recent events clearly show, the United States has never tolerated armed groups residing within its borders. The intent of the particular organization, whether ideological or criminal, mattered little. If the group was building an illegal arsenal, the group was subject to a federal enforcement action. To this day, ATF's enforcement focus retains the flavor of that historic concern with armed organizations. The agency has developed considerable expertise and success in investigating the activities of motorcycle, street, and drug gangs, all of which share in common a proclivity to amass large arsenals of powerful weapons.
The raid on the Branch Davidian compound occurred in the context of that historical background.
(1) Bowen, Miracle at Philadelphia, p. 287; Frederick S. Calhoun, The Lawmen. United States Marshals and Their Deputies, 1789-1989, (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1990), p. 32.
(2) Fillmore quoted in W.U. Hensel, The Christiana Rio and the Treason Trials of 1851. An Historical Sketch, (New York: Negro Universities Press, 1911), pp. 92-3; Calhoun, The Lawmen. pp. 82-93.
(3) Attorney General George Williams, circular letter to U.S. Attorneys and Marshals, September 3, 1874, Attorney General Instruction Book E, Record Group 60, Records of the Department of Justice, National Archives.
(4) General William Tecumseh Sherman to Attorney General Benjamin Brewster, April 12, 1882, Source-Chronological Files, Record Group 60, National Archives; Calhoun, The Lawmen, p. 196; Larry Ball, United States Marshals of Arizona and New Mexico, 1846-1912, (Albuquerque, NM: University of New Mexico Press, 1978), pp. 125-6.
(5) Almont Lindsey, The Pullman Strike, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1967), p. 245, 274-92; Calhoun, The Lawmen, 209, 214.
(6) Los Angeles Times, May 18, 1974.
(7) James Corcoran, Bitter Harvest Gordon Kahl and the Posse Comitatus: Murder in the Heartland, (New York: Viking Press, 1990).
(8) James Coates, Armed and Dangerous. The Rise of the Survivalist Right, (New York: Hill and Wang, 1987), pp. 41-76.
(9) James Coates, Armed and Dangerous. The Rise of the Survivalist Right, (New York: Hill and Wang, 1987), pp. 142-4.
END Appendix G Treasury Dept. Report on Waco
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