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What Exactly is the ATF? Let Us Explain.

Second Amendment
Image: Creative Commons.

There is a joke among some Americans that “Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms” should be a convenience store and not a government agency.

However, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (BATFE or ATF) is very much a federal law enforcement agency and its origins date back to the 1880s when it was the “Revenue Laboratory” within the United States Department of the Treasury’s Bureau of Internal Revenue – later the Internal Revenue Service or IRS.

Later, the agency that would eventually become ATF was part of the Bureau of Prohibition and in 1927 was transferred to the Justice Department and was even briefly a division of the FBI. When the Volstead Act, which had established Prohibition, was repealed in December 1933, the unit was transferred back to the Treasury and became the Alcohol Tax Unit (ATU), and later the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax Division (ATTD).

With the passage of the Gun Control Act of 1968, the agency was renamed and became the Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms Division of the IRS. It was at that point that it became known as ATF. In 1972, the ATF was officially established as an independent bureau within the Treasury Department. Under the ATF’s first director, Rex D. Davis, the bureau shifted its primary focus to address gun violence and the enforcement of firearms laws.

However, it should be noted that the issue of taxation on alcohol and tobacco are still a priority for the agency, even as the Homeland Security Act of 2002 shifted the ATF from the Department of the Treasury to the Department of Justice.

ATF currently has more than 5,100 employees and an annual budget of $1.274 billion.

Enforcing the Law or Making Policy? 

“The goal of ATF’s Alcohol and Tobacco Enforcement Programs in order to target, identify, and dismantle criminal enterprises with ties to violent crime, that traffic illicit liquor or contraband tobacco in interstate commerce; seize and deny their access to assets and funds; and prevent their encroachment into the legitimate alcohol or tobacco industry,” the agency noted on its website.

Yet, for supporters of the Second Amendment, it is the ATF’s continuing focus on firearms that has been a concern, even as the agency’s mission is to noted to be directed “to protect 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 agency also seeks to improve public safety by increasing compliance with Federal laws and regulations by firearms industry members.

The bigger issue now is that the ATF – as with other federal law enforcement agencies – isn’t meant to forge new policies but simply to enforce the laws. The concern is that President Joe Biden has nominated David Chipman to serve as director of the ATF. While Chipman is a twenty-five year veteran of the agency, more recently he worked for Everytown for Gun Safety, and current serves as senior policy advisor at the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence. According to his bio, which is still present on the website, his expertise includes “Ghost Guns, Gun Industry, Law Enforcement, Assault Weapons.”

Moreover, on his Linkedin profile, Chipman lists himself as a “violent crime reduction strategist” and “gun violence prevention expert.” Chipman supports Joe Biden’s calls to ban so-called modern sporting rifles, which he has labeled assault weapons; as well as limiting high-capacity magazines, expanding background checks and ending the protections firearms manufacturers have from frivolous lawsuits. He has called upon ATF to increase inspections of federally licensed gun dealers.

Chipman’s nomination has been opposed by dozens of House Republicans, as well as by the National Rifle Association (NRA). However, Larry Keane of the National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF) may have summed up the nomination best.

“It’s hard to think of a worse possible nominee than David Chipman to run the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF),” wrote Keane, senior vice president for government and public affairs, assistant secretary and general counsel at the NSSF.

‎”President Joe Biden could have nominated Robert Francis ‘Beto’ O’Rourke, as he infamously promised him a gun control job at an El Paso campaign appearance,” added Keane. “Or maybe even given the nod to Michael Bloomberg. It seems President Biden’s primary qualifications for the job are ‘must hate guns’ and ‘belittle those who buy guns.'”

While it is clear the ATF has a very valid job to do as a law enforcement agency, there is a valid concern among gun owners that the agency could soon be headed by someone opposed to the Second Amendment. ATF shouldn’t be an agency feared by law-abiding gun owners, but Chipman could certainly change that fact.

Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers and websites. He regularly writes about military small arms, and is the author of several books on military headgear including A Gallery of Military Headdress, which is available on

Written By

Expert Biography: A Senior Editor for 1945, Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers, and websites with over 3,000 published pieces over a twenty-year career in journalism. He regularly writes about military hardware, firearms history, cybersecurity, and international affairs. Peter is also a Contributing Writer for Forbes. You can follow him on Twitter: @PeterSuciu.