Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms & Explosives (ATF): History, Role & Purpose

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  • 0:01 The ATF
  • 1:58 Duties of the ATF
  • 4:11 History of the ATF
  • 6:15 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Ashley Dugger

Ashley has a JD degree and is an attorney. She has extensive experience as a prosecutor and legal writer, and she has taught and written various law courses.

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives is known as the 'ATF.' The ATF is a law enforcement agency in charge of criminal organizations, acts of terrorism and many other areas. This lesson explains the roles and history of the ATF.


Alcohol, tobacco, firearms and explosives -- that's quite a dangerous combination! That may be a typical day for a notorious gangster or an international terrorist; it's also a typical day for an ATF agent.

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives is popularly known as the 'ATF.' It's one of several law enforcement agencies within the federal Department of Justice. For many years, the ATF was a part of the Department of the Treasury. However, it was reassigned to the Department of Justice in 2003. That's also when the term 'Explosives' was added to the end of the ATF's title, though the acronym remains simply 'ATF.'

Each agency within the Department of Justice has a specific role. The ATF is responsible for several different law enforcement activities. The ATF's roles include:

  • Protecting people from violent criminals
  • Protecting society from criminal organizations
  • Preventing the illegal use and trafficking of firearms
  • Preventing the illegal use and storage of explosives
  • Protecting people from acts of arson and bombings
  • Preventing acts of terrorism
  • Preventing the illegal diversion of alcohol and tobacco products

The ATF also used to be in charge of certain tax and trade crimes, but those duties stayed within the Treasury Department when the ATF moved to the Department of Justice.

Let's take a closer look at a few of the ATF's duties.

Duties of the ATF

Many people are familiar with the ATF's role in firearms enforcement. Specifically, this means the ATF is responsible for enforcing all federal laws involving firearms. This includes the Brady Act, which is a federal law requiring firearms dealers to perform an official background check before transferring a firearm to another person. Note that the term 'firearm' includes things like guns, hand grenades and bombs. The Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act is named after James Brady, the former White House Press Secretary who took a bullet to the head during an assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan.

The ATF is also in charge of arson and explosives enforcement. This means the ATF is responsible for enforcing all federal laws and regulations concerning destructive devices, other explosives and arson. The ATF investigates crime scenes, such as that of the Boston Marathon bombing, in order to detect the use of explosives and analyze the materials used. This information helps lead to the identification of suspects.

Though less prominent these days, the ATF is still actively engaged in the enforcement of alcohol and tobacco laws. For example, organized crime groups engage in buttlegging, which is the illegal transport of cigarettes from a state with a low tax rate to a state with a high tax rate in order to resell the cigarettes on the black market. It's an attractive type of crime because states each set their own tax rates on cigarettes. As a result, one truckload of trafficked cigarettes can lead to a profit of $2 million when resold in another state. Cigarette trafficking is a form of tax evasion and has strong links to terrorism, since profits have been traced to suspected terrorist groups.

History of the ATF

Historically, the ATF was involved in fighting many crimes similar to buttlegging. Though the ATF traces its roots back to 1791 and the nation's first tax laws, the ATF is probably most famous for fighting violent crime and pursuing bootleggers while the agency was known as the Bureau of Prohibition. Bootleggers are people involved in the illegal trafficking of liquor. This era in the ATF's history lasted from approximately 1920 to 1933 and featured famous ATF agent Eliot Ness.

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