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Abolish the ATF


The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) is under fire by Republicans and conservatives yet again. And for good reason.

First it was the “Fast and Furious” operation in Phoenix, where ATF agents allowed illegal gun sales that were believed to be ultimately for Mexican drug cartels in order to track the buyers and sellers. It resulted in about 1,300 weapons’ being unaccounted for by the ATF. Two weapons linked to the operation turned up in connection with the murder of a U.S. border patrol agent, and U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder was cited for contempt of Congress.

Now it is Operation Fearless in Milwaukee. There the ATF covertly opened a store called “Fearless Distributing,” which sold designer clothes, athletic shoes, jewelry, and drug paraphernalia. The undercover ATF agents working behind the counter of this storefront-sting operation “let it be known” that they were willing to buy guns and drugs. The sting operation resulted in the seizure of 145 guns, including some sawed-off shotguns, stolen guns, and guns with obliterated serial numbers. Charges were filed against about 30 people, mostly for low-level drug sales and gun-possession counts. ATF spokesman Special Agent Robert Schmidt said that “he is convinced the operation didn’t bring crime to the neighborhood and instead made the streets of Milwaukee safer.” “Our number-one responsibility is denying criminal access to firearms and that is what we are trying to do,” he said. “It is our duty to purchase these firearms to protect the American public and citizens of Milwaukee.” He “declined to say how much the sting operation cost.”

But the sting operation also resulted in “a string of mistakes and failures.” No major drug dealers were ensnared, nor were any gangs “taken down.” Instead, an ATF military-style machine gun ended up on the streets, the store was robbed of $35,000 worth of merchandise, such high prices were paid for guns that some defendants simply bought guns from local stores for resale to ATF agents, and the ATF is in a dispute with the building’s owner over utility bills and damage to the 8,000 square feet of the building that was rented for $3,200 a month in cash. Residents of the area “are angry the ATF secretly drew drug dealers and gun-toting felons to their neighborhood.”

The ATF has also conducted similar storefront-sting operations in Portland, Albuquerque, Wichita, Atlanta, and Pensacola.

In a hearing earlier this month at the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.) told ATF director B. Todd Jones that the agency’s Milwaukee storefront operation should have been renamed “Operation Fearless and Brainless.” Although the ATF assured the committee that the “botched operation” was “an isolated incident,” committee chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) said that the Milwaukee incident “followed an incredibly reckless pattern,” as the ATF had “mismanaged similar undercover operations across the country.” He even stated that the “ATF’s dangerous tactics may actually be increasing crime in your neighborhood.”

ATF director Jones said that he wished he “had better answers” when questioned about why his agents made two visits to a federally licensed gun dealer in a 13-month period after she applied for tax-exempt status for her conservative group. The woman, a “tea party conservative,” was also audited by the IRS and visited by a Democratic member of Congress and OSHA.

Republicans in Congress and conservatives in the tea party movement are right to be troubled about the egregious activities of the ATF. But one thing the Republicans on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee never asked the ATF director was to constitutionally justify the existence of his agency.

Nor will they ever ask it.

Indeed, during the committee hearing, Representative Issa mentioned “hard-working ATF agents who get it right.”

Republicans and conservatives sometimes criticize certain policies and procedures of the ATF when there is a Democratic administration. Just as Democrats and liberals sometimes do when there is a Republican administration. Neither group questions the existence of the ATF itself.

The current incarnation of the ATF was not formally instituted until 2003, when “and explosives” was added to the name, the bureau was shifted from the Treasury Department to the Justice Department, and its revenue-collection and alcohol-production regulatory functions were transferred to the new Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB). Although the roots of the ATF “can be traced back to 1791 when the first tax on distilled spirits was implemented by the new secretary to the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton,” its real predecessor is the Bureau of Prohibition established in 1920. After the repeal of the Volstead Act in 1933, the bureau was called the Alcohol Tax Unit. It was christened the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms in 1972.

According to the latest ATF “Fact Sheet,”

ATF is a unique law enforcement agency in the United States Department of Justice 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. The men and women of ATF perform the dual responsibilities of enforcing federal criminal laws and regulating the firearms and explosives industries.

The ATF has 4,770 employees and a budget of $1.152 billion.

That is 4,770 employees too many and $1.152 billion too much.

The ATF should be abolished, but not because of any political concerns or because any of its operations have resulted in “a string of mistakes and failures.” The regulation of alcohol, tobacco, firearms, or explosives is simply not a legitimate function of government. Any legitimate law-enforcement function of the ATF could certainly be handled by another agency under the umbrella of the Justice Department. But even then, the federal government has thousands of federal crimes too many. Congress and the federal agencies it has created have federalized a host of ordinary street crimes already covered by state criminal codes.

In a free society, alcohol would be processed, bought, and sold just like orange juice. (I was going to say milk, but the federal government heavily regulates the dairy industry.) In a free society, tobacco would be cultivated, bought, and sold just like any other crop. In a free society, there wouldn’t be federally licensed gun dealers any more than there would be federally licensed car dealers. In a free society, explosives would be manufactured, bought, and sold just like chemicals that are potentially hazardous.

Liberals, progressives, Democrats, Republicans, moderates, and conservatives are all united on one thing: they don’t agree with libertarians when it comes to the proper role of government. But here is something else that they should be united on: the Constitution. There is no grant of power in the Constitution to the federal government to have anything to do with alcohol, tobacco, firearms, or explosives. That means no federal restrictions on the home brewing of beer, no federal cigarette-warning labels, no federal criminal background-check system for gun purchases, and no federal regulations on the use of fireworks.

It is ironic that all of those groups, even though they claim to respect and follow the Constitution, reject the Constitution when it comes to the existence of federal agencies such as the ATF; but libertarians, even though they don’t base their philosophy of government on the Constitution, actually follow the Constitution when it comes to the existence of federal agencies such as the ATF.

No ATF agent can ever “get it right.” He is an employee of an agency that is not authorized by Constitution and is regulating things never authorized by the Constitution.


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