For decades, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms & Explosives (ATF) has acted in a lawless fashion, including engaging in acts of violence against American citizens. For most of its existence, ATF was situated in the U.S. Department of the Treasury because federal control of alcohol and tobacco centered on the collection of federal excise taxes. However, in 2003, ATF was moved to the U.S. Department of Justice, demonstrating that it was a full-fledged law enforcement organization. It didn’t deserve to be transferred and elevated — it should have been abolished. The list of reasons that ATF has been one of the most despised and distrusted federal agencies is long, and only a few of its most disgraceful actions are discussed here.
The Assault on Ruby Ridge. Beginning in late August 1992, ATF was at the center of an 11-day assault on the remote Idaho cabin of survivalist Randy Weaver and his family. Weaver allegedly had sold a sawed-off shotgun to an ATF informant and then failed to appear in court to address those charges. That was enough for federal agents to launch a full-scale assault on the Weaver property.
During the assault, FBI sniper Lon Horiuchi wounded Weaver family friend Kevin Harris as well as shot and killed Randy’s wife Vicky (who when shot was holding their 10-month-old child). Randy’s teenage son Sammy was shot and killed by a U.S. Marshall while firing back at those federal agents who had shot and killed his dog. Conservative author and commentator William Norman Grigg pointed out the irony of Horiuchi serving as a sniper on what was called the FBI’s “‘Hostage Rescue Team,’ an Orwellian designation for a unit that functioned as a death squad at Ruby Ridge in 1992 and Waco in 1993.” A U.S. Marshall was also shot and killed during the attack.
FBI Sniper Horiuchi was charged with involuntary manslaughter in Idaho state court, after which the case was removed to federal court, where the charges were dismissed based on claimed immunity of federal officers acting in the scope of their employment. Idaho v. Horiuchi, 1998 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 7667, at *31. The Ninth Circuit reversed, but state charges were eventually dropped, apparently under pressure from the federal law enforcement. Civil litigation resulted in a $3.1 million settlement paid by the federal government. “[A] U.S. Senate panel accused the federal agencies involved of ‘substantial failures’ in their handling of the Ruby Ridge operation” — a mild rebuke to be sure.
The Assault on Branch Davidians. About a year later, after Bill Clinton assumed office, ATF was at the center of the standoff at the “Branch Davidian” compound of cult leader David Koresh in Waco, Texas, leading to the death of 76 civilians as their building went up in flames after an attack by ATF and the FBI using tanks and tear gas against Americans.
The House Government Reform & Oversight Committee issued a blistering follow-up report on ATF’s multitude of mistakesin the operation from its inception onward. The report found that the original “affidavit filed in support of the warrants [to search the compound for alleged illegal weapons] contained numerous false statements.” (It seems that in government reports any false statement made by an American Citizen is described as a “lie,” but any lie told by federal law enforcement is merely a “false statement.”)
The report found that “Koresh could have been arrested outside the Davidian compound. The ATF deliberately chose not to arrest Koresh outside the Davidian residence and instead determined to use a dynamic entry approach,” the “most hazardous of the options.” In making this decision, “ATF agents exercised extremely poor judgment, made erroneous assumptions, and ignored the perils of this course of action which they should have foreseen.”
The report shredded ATF for its “propensity to engage in aggressive law enforcement,” noting that “planning for a military style raid began more than 2 months before undercover and infiltration efforts even began.” The House Committee found that the ATF chose “the most hazardous of the options [to arrest Koresh], despite its recognition that a violent confrontation was predictable.” This was not an innocent choice of “tactics” — ATF’s enthusiasm to use siege tactics and employ weapons of war against American citizens led to the death of 76 human beings, including many women and children.
Fast & Furious Gun Walking. In 2009, the Phoenix ATF office began to allow “[g]un-buyers, many of whom the feds suspected were criminals … to take firearms purchased in the U.S. and walk into Mexico …; the [alleged] intention was that once the guns were sold to powerful drug cartels, the ATF would later trace the firearms.” Undermining the honesty of that claimed purpose, “[w]histleblowers and investigators, however, found no attempt [was made] to trace the guns.” More than 2,000 guns were trafficked. Predictably, the program led to an explosion in the number of guns illegally in the hands of Mexican drug cartels and terrorists. By June 2010, “the ATF were aware of over 300 of these weapons being found at crime scenes, 179 in Mexico and 130 in the United States.”
If the motive to let the guns “walk” to Mexico was not to track their movements, what might it have been? One commentator explained the Obama Administration’s plan. “Politically motivated officials who wanted to find an excuse to crack down on Second Amendment rights joined with inept bureaucrats to create a toxic brew.”
Tragically, this Fast and Furious ATF program led directly to the murder of Border Patrol agent Brian Terry by gunmen whose “Fast and Furious” trafficked rifles were left at the scene. The sordid story of ATF arming Mexican terrorists was brilliantly exposed in Katie Pavlich’s 2012 book Fast and Furious: Barack Obama’s Bloodiest Scandal and the Shameless Cover-Up.
National Gun Registry. Now fast forward to 2021. Gun Owners of America’s research uncovered the fact that the ATF was violating federal law by beginning to compile a national gun registry, in violation of an explicit prohibition in the federal Firearms Owners Protection Act (“FOPA”). In November 2021, Congressman Michael Cloud (R-TX) and 51 other House Republicans followed up with a letter to Marvin Richardson, acting director of ATF. The letter explained that ATF’s proposed regulation that would violate FOPA as it would “require [licensed firearms dealers] to preserve all firearm transaction records. This means that 100% of all lawful commercial firearm transfers would eventually end up in an ATF computer system, thereby creating a permanent database.” The letter reminded the ATF that Congress had made it crystal clear in FOPA that “the federal government shall not create a federal gun registry and has prohibited ATF from creating any centralized databases with its funding.”
Congressman Cloud also introduced in the House, along with Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) in the Senate, the “No Registry Rights Act,” to require the ATF to destroy all firearm purchase records in its possession and to require licensed dealers to destroy purchase records as well, instead of turning them over to the ATF. “Governments should not have a list, in any country, of the people who possess the firearms meant to keep those very governments in check. Gun registries are precursors to gun confiscation and should not exist,” said Congressman Thomas Massie (R-KY).
It is difficult to imagine an agency with a worse track record than ATF — although the FBI does give ATF a run for its money. This is a rogue agency that has acted in a lawless and reckless fashion, unwilling to be constrained by federal law or common decency. It should not be allowed to continue to cause the death of even more Americans, to say nothing of its work to deprive Americans of their firearms liberties. There are enough state gun laws on the books to meet the nation’s needs, so we can let the states prosecute all gun crimes, and save the taxpayers nearly $2 billion a year by simply abolishing the ATF — or at least its authority over guns, as a start.
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