The agency is led by Michael J. Sullivan, Acting Director and Ronnie A. Carter, Deputy Director. ATF has nearly 5,000 employees and an annual budget of $1 billion.
When the Volstead Act was repealed in December 1933, the Unit was transferred from the Department of Justice back to the Department of the Treasury where it became the Alcohol Tax Unit of the Bureau of Internal Revenue. Special Agent Eliot Ness and several members of "Untouchables", who had worked for the Prohibition Bureau while the Volstead Act was still in force, were transferred to the ATU. In 1942, responsibility for enforcing federal firearms laws was given to the ATU.
In the early 1950s, the name of the Bureau of Internal Revenue was changed to "Internal Revenue Service" (IRS), and the ATU was given the additional responsibility of enforcing federal tobacco tax laws. At this time, the name of the ATU was changed to the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax Division (ATTD).
In 1968, with the passage of the Gun Control Act, the agency changed its name again, this time to the Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms Division of the IRS and first began to be referred to by the initials "ATF." In 1972, President Richard Nixon signed an Executive Order creating a separate Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms within the Treasury Department. Rex D. Davis oversaw the transition, becoming the bureau's first director, having headed the division since 1970. During his tenure, Davis shepherded the organization into a premier agency targeting political terrorists and organized crime.
In the wake of the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, President George W. Bush signed into law the Homeland Security Act of 2002. In addition to creating of the Department of Homeland Security, the law shifted ATF (and its investigative and regulatory inspection functions) from the Treasury Department to the Justice Department. The agency's name was changed to Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives. However, the agency still was referred to as the "ATF" for all purposes. Additionally, the task of collection of federal tax revenue derived from the production of tobacco and liquor products originally handled by ATF was transferred to the newly established Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB), which remained within the Treasury Department. These changes took effect January 24, 2003.
ATF Inspectors and Investigators are charged with regulating the gun and explosive industry. These men and women are not armed law enforcement officers but have administrative authority to search and conduct inspections, as well as to suspend and revoke Federal Firearms Licensee's who are in violation of Federal law.
The remainder of the Bureau is personnel in various staff roles from office administrative assistants to intelligence analysts and electronic specialists. Additionally, ATF relies heavily on state and local task force officers to supplement the Special Agents and who are not officially part of the ATF roster.
ATF Special Agent hiring is fiercely competitive, comparable to the selection process of other Special Agent positions in sister agencies. Typically far less than 5% of qualified applicants- those possessing at minimum a four year degree and competitive work experience (which is usually four or more years at a local or state police department) are eventually hired. ATF's hiring process has a nondisclosure agreement so the specific details of the process are not completely revealed, however applicants must pass a rigorous background check in order to achieve, at minimum, a top secret clearance. In addition to the background check agents must pass written tests, multiple physical fitness tests, interviews and medical exams to even be considered to be selected for training.
ATF Special Agents train at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center at Glynco, Georgia. ATF Special Agents must complete a 27 week training program, one of the longest training programs in the United States and far longer than any other training program of Justice Department Special Agents (FBI, DEA, USMS). This training program currently consists of a one week pre-Basic, the twelve week basic Criminal Investigator Training Program, and a fourteen week Special Agent Basic Training Course. Only then are Special Agents released to a field office to begin a three year probationary tour.
The first incident occurred on August 21, 1992, in northern Idaho and is known as the Ruby Ridge incident. US Marshals seeking to arrest Randy Weaver for failing to appear in court to answer charges relating to selling an illegally shortened sawed-off shotgun, shot and killed his son, Samuel and wife, Vicki. The incident has become a lightning rod for legal activists within the gun rights community.
The second incident was the Waco Siege of the Branch Davidian community in Waco, Texas on February 28, 1993 when ATF agents attempted to execute a federal search warrant on the cult's compound, known as Mt. Carmel. The Branch Davidians were alerted to the upcoming warrant execution and ambushed the agents as they arrived at the compound. The Branch Davidians opened fire on the agents, the exchange of gunfire left six Davidians and four ATF agents dead. The Federal Bureau of Investigation took over the scene and a 51 day stand off ensued ending on April 19, 1993, when after the FBI introduced tear gas into the main building on the compound a fire engulfed the whole structure. The follow up investigation revealed the bodies of seventy six people including twenty children. Post morteum examinations of the bodies showed that a number of the victims were shot in the back or in the head at close range and that few if anyone died as a result of the fire. Although a grand jury found that the deaths were suicides or otherwise caused by people inside the building, widespread accusations of excessive force by law enforcement persist.