The agency was formerly part of the U.S. Department of Treasury, which was formed in 1886 as the “Revenue Laboratory” within the Treasury Department’s Bureau of Internal Revenue. Their history can be traced back to a time of revenuers, or “revenoors” and the Bureau of Prohibition, formed as a unit of the Bureau of Internal Revenue in 1920. ATF was made an independent agency within the Treasury Department in 1927, transferred to the Justice Department in 1930 and briefly became a division of the FBI in 1933.
When the Volstead Act, which established Prohibition, was repealed in 1933, the unit was transferred from the Department of Justice back to the Department of Treasury, where it became the Alcohol Tax Unit (ATU) of the Bureau of Internal Revenue.
In 1942, responsibility for enforcing federal firearms laws was given to ATU. Then in the early 1950’s, the Bureau of Internal Revenue was renamed to the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) and ATU was given the additional responsibility of enforcing federal tobacco tax laws. ATU’s name was changed to Alcohol and Tobacco Tax Division (ATTD).
With the passage of the Gun Control Act in 1968, the agency changed its name again to the Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms Division of the IRS and first started using the initials “ATF”.
In Title XI of the Organized Crime Control Act of 1970, Congress enacted the Explosives Control Act which provided for close regulation of the explosives industry and designated certain arsons and bombings as federal crimes. These responsibilities were designated to the ATF division of the IRS.
In 1972, ATF was established as a separate bureau within the Treasury Department when Treasury Department Order 221 (Effective July 1, 1972) transferred responsibilities of the ATF division of the IRS to the new Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms.
During Rex D. Davis’ tenure (ATF’s first director), the primary mission of the agency became federal firearms and explosive laws addressing violent crimes. Taxation and other alcohol issues remained priorities as ATF collected billions of dollars in alcohol/tobacco taxes and undertook major revisions of federal wine labeling regulations.
In response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks, President George W. Bush signed the Homeland Security Act of 2002 into law. In addition to this creating the Department of Homeland Security, the law shifted ATF from the Department of Treasury to the Department of Justice. The agencies’ name was changed to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives—however, the agency is still referred to as ATF.
Also, the task of federal tax revenue collection derived from the production of tobacco/alcohol products and regulatory function related to protecting the public on issues related to the production of alcohol, previously handled by ATF, was transferred to the newly established Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB).
The next post in this series will look at one of the most famous ATF agents, Eliot Ness.