Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) | Definition

Doc's CJ Glossary by Adam J. McKee
Course: Introduction / Policing

The mission of ATF is to conduct criminal investigations, regulate the firearms and explosives industries, and assist other law enforcement agencies.

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) was formed in 1972 as the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms under the Treasury Department. Its primary mission at the time was to control the use of alcohol, tobacco, firearms, and explosives through enforcement of the laws and regulations governing their manufacture, sale, and distribution. The ATF became a part of the Department of Justice in 2003, under the Homeland Security Act.

The ATF’s primary focus is on investigating and preventing violent crime and terrorism related to firearms and explosives. They also regulate the firearms and explosives industries, ensuring compliance with federal laws and regulations. This includes conducting inspections and audits of federally licensed firearms dealers and manufacturers to ensure that they are properly storing and handling firearms, as well as conducting investigations of illegal firearms trafficking.

The ATF also works closely with other law enforcement agencies at the federal, state, and local levels to investigate and prosecute crimes related to firearms and explosives. They provide training and technical assistance to other agencies and participate in joint task forces to target and dismantle criminal organizations involved in the trafficking of firearms and explosives.

One of the most high-profile cases investigated by the ATF was the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995. The ATF played a critical role in the investigation, which ultimately resulted in the conviction of Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols for the bombing that killed 168 people.

The ATF has also been involved in the investigation of mass shootings in the United States, including the 2017 Las Vegas shooting and the 2018 Parkland shooting. These investigations often involve tracing the firearms used in the shootings to their source, and working with other agencies to identify and apprehend the individuals responsible.

The ATF has come under criticism in recent years for its enforcement of federal firearms laws, particularly related to the regulation of bump stocks and other firearm accessories. Some gun rights advocates have criticized the agency for what they see as overreach in regulating firearms, while others have criticized it for not doing enough to enforce existing laws.

Despite this criticism, the ATF remains a vital part of the federal law enforcement community, working to prevent violent crime and terrorism while upholding the Constitution and the laws of the United States. Its work is critical to the safety and security of the American people, and its continued dedication to its mission will undoubtedly play a significant role in shaping the future of law enforcement in the United States.

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Last Modified: 04/10/2023

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