The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, or ATF, is an accident of history. The origins of the modern ATF date back to the Civil War era, when Congress created the Office of Internal Revenue within the Department of the Treasury to collect taxes on spirits and tobacco products. In the decades that followed, ATF slowly acquired jurisdiction over additional areas in a sporadic, piecemeal fashion. Over the years, it has been the accidental repository for federal oversight and enforcement of various industries—alcohol and tobacco in the early 1900s, firearms in the 1930s, and explosives in the 1970s—as the need for such oversight has arisen. ATF slowly evolved from a pure tax collection agency with jurisdiction over one industry into a hybrid regulatory and law enforcement agency charged with the oversight of three of the nation’s most politically fraught consumer products: alcohol, tobacco, and firearms. But over the past 50 years—in the wake of the assassination of a president, his brother, and a civil rights icon and as a crime wave drove gun violence to unprecedented levels—firearms enforcement has become ATF’s primary mission.
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