Tag Archives: Harris Federal Law Firm

Blended Retirement System for Military Members

blended

previous blog introduced you to a new retirement system for military members. Now, there is more information on that system and how it will affect service members.

The Federal Retirement Thrift Investment Board, the agency that administers the Thrift Savings Plan, has been working with military services to train eligible service members on their options. The FRTIB proposed rule on September 11, 2017, gave more specific details about implementing the new blended retirement system (BRS) along with who is eligible and when they’ll receive their first contributions.

The new plan moves military members from a retirement relying on a vested defined benefit plan to one that includes a reduced benefit plan with greater TSP benefits, the continuation of pay, and come lump sum options.

The new BRS incorporates four major changes to the current military retirement system

First, employing military services will contribute 1 percent of service members monthly pay to their TSP account. These contributions are in addition to basic pay. The military services will continue to contribute whether members contribute on their own.

Second, service members will be automatically enrolled to contribute 3 percent of their basic pay. The program will re-enroll them annually if service members stop making contributions.

Third, military employers will match TSP contributions from their service members dollar for dollar for the first 3 percent of their basic pay and 50 cents on the dollar for the next 2 percent.

Fourth, the program will invest employee contributions in an age-appropriate lifecycle (L) fund rather than the government securities (G) fund—unless otherwise chosen by the member.

Two groups will be eligible to participate in this new system:

  • Service members who enter the military on or after January 1, 2018
  • Military members with 12 years of service or fewer who decide to opt into BRS

Individual services determine which military members are eligible. Reservists who have less than 4,320 retirement points before December 31, 2017, may also be eligible. (Click here to learn more about retirement points)

To learn more about this new system, click below.

 

More on the Blended Retirement System for Military Members

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ATF–History of the Badges

atf

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives has had many badges over their history. Here’s a look at how the ATF badges have evolved.

atfOffice of Commissioner of Internal Revenue, Department of Treasury, 1791-1919

The ATF law enforcement legacy began in 1791 when the first tax on whiskey passed under President George Washington. ATF’s legacy evolved under the U.S. Department of Treasury, first as part of the Office of Commissioner of Internal Revenue and then with the Bureau of Internal Revenue. Today’s ATF Special Agents and Investigators are directly descended from the earliest Internal Revenue Collectors, Deputy Collectors, Assessors, Gougers, Store keeps, and Inspectors. This star badge is believed to be the original issue of that era.

atfProhibition Unit, Bureau of Internal Revenue, U.S. Department of Treasury, 1920-1926

On January 19, 1919, Congress ratified the 18th Amendment banning the manufacture, sale, and transport of alcoholic beverages. Prohibition led to underground distilleries and saloons supplying bootlegged liquor. This prompted the U.S. Department of Treasury to strengthen its law enforcement capabilities. Eliot Ness emerged on the scene as a temporary Prohibition Agent.

atfBureau of Prohibition, U.S. Department of Treasury, 1927-1930

In 1927, the Prohibition Unit was reorganized into the separate and distinct Bureau of U.S. Department of Treasury. As criminals gained control over the illegal liquor industry, a new mission of the Bureau emerged; crime fighting.

atfBureau of Prohibition, U.S. Department of Justice, 1930-1933

By 1930, the crime fighting mission began conflicting with the Treasury Departments’ philosophy of voluntary compliance with the laws. Crime fighting was transferred to the U.S. Department of Justice. The Treasury Department created the Bureau of Industrial Alcohol to carry out its remaining regulatory functions.

In 1933, the 21st Amendment ended prohibition. The Bureau of Prohibition and Alcoholic Beverage Unit were dismantled. President Franklin Roosevelt issued an executive order consolidating any federal agencies enforcing and regulating the liquor industry into one entity. That new entity became the Alcohol Tax Unit (ATU) of the Internal Revenue Service.

atfAlcohol Tax Unit, Bureau of Internal Revenue, U.S. Department of Treasury, 1934-1951

There was still an illegal liquor problem in the country during this time. ATU seized many plants in the first few months of their existence. ATU managed to dismantle large liquor syndicated and the attitudes of prosecutors, judges, and courts began to change.

atfAlcohol and Tobacco Tax Division, Internal Revenue Service, U.S. Department of Treasury, 1952-1967

In 1952, the IRS consolidated enforcement responsibilities of alcohol and tobacco under one unit known as the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax Division. Moonshine production became a problem and moonshine related deaths became widespread.

atfAlcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms Division, Internal Revenue Service, U.S. Department of Treasury, 1968-1971

Investigations of firearms and explosives-related crimes and regulation of those industries became a high priority within the U.S. Department of Treasury. Congress delegated the enforcement of laws and regulations to Alcohol and Tobacco Tax Division, which had expanded responsibilities in firearms. Therefore, it became known as the Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms Division.

atfBureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, U.S. Department of Treasury, 1972-2002

ATF became an independent bureau on July 1, 1972, and reported directly to the Treasury Department’s Office of Enforcement, Tariff and Trade Affairs, and Operations. Responsibilities changes with ATF, moving from primarily the investigation of illicit alcohol, to crimes involving firearms, explosives, and arson.

atfBureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives, Department of Justice. 2003-Present

The Homeland Security Act of 2002 transferred law enforcement responsibilities of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms with the Treasury Department to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives with the U.S. Department of Justice.

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New VA Disability “Improvement” Law Actually Decreases Assistance

assistance

Despite the title, when President Trump signed the Veterans Appeals Improvement and Modernization Act at the end of August, some important assistance evaporated.  In the past, when filing a claim for VA disability compensation, the VA was obligated to help the veteran locate documents pertaining to his service or medical records to help him prove his disability is connected to his military service.

For example, a veteran could tell the VA approximately which dates a particular incident occurred, and the VA was obligated to procure the pertinent documents that might link the disability to his service (think the deck logs of a certain vessel).  This was known as the VA’s “duty to assist,” and it was a great resource for veterans since obtaining these kinds of documents can be difficult, time-consuming and costly. This duty was consistent with the general orientation that the VA is required to have toward vets (i.e., accommodating and helpful).

But this provision has now changed at a crucial point in the process; veterans can still take advantage of the duty to assist at the initial claim phase, but that obligation on the VA disappears after an initial ratings decision has been rendered. Because Veterans aren’t allowed to pay counsel for representation during the initial claim phase, it’s predictable that most veterans will overlook this important assistance until it is too late.

If a veteran wishes to appeal the partial or complete denial of his or her claim—at the time he or she can retain paid counsel—he or she will have to do so without the records help of the VA. If certain documents were not procured and the veteran is sure they do exist, then he or she will have to independently find them.

As with most political arguments, what can be alleged to be helpful can, in practice, be counterproductive; in this case, that is decreasing the number of approvals of VA disability claims.  The justification here is that now VA employees will be spending less time looking for substantiating documents on behalf of veterans and have more time for processing appeals.

This new development in the appeals process has been criticized by some organizations. For example, the Vietnam Veterans of America recently said, “It hardly seems like a pro-veteran system where an adjudicatory body knows of possible helpful information for a claimant but is not able to act on this knowledge in a helpful way to the veteran.”

What is your takeaway from this news?  Be sure to insist on VA assistance in locating documents pertaining to your military service and medical records when you file your initial claim for VA disability benefits— before you lose your right to request that assistance.

This article was written by Brad Harris, Attorney at Law, of the Harris Federal Law Firm.  He can be reached at brad@harrisfederal.com or toll-free at (877) 226-2723.  

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Options to Change FERS

contributions

The federal government spent $91 billion on retirement benefits for civilian employees in 2016 alone.

  • $70 billion for CSRS pensions for civilian retirees and their survivors
  • $13 billion for FERS pensions for civilian retirees and their survivors
  • $8 billion for TSP contributions

These expenses were partially offset by $3 billion in revenue from employee contributions to CSRS/FERS pension plans.

The national debt is close to $20 trillion and continues to rise. Because of this, the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee asked the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) to consider changing the federal retirement system for potential savings. Under the current system, the governments’ net expenses for federal civilian retirement systems are projected to grow by an average of 2.8 percent annually between 2018-2027.

Retirement Options for FERS

The report from the CBO examines how changing FERS would affect federal government spending in the long term.

Option 1

This option would modify the FERS pension plan by changing employee contributions to the plan. It would increase the FERS contribution rate to 4.4 percent for current employees (from 0.8 percent for employees hired before 2013 and from 3.1 percent for employees hired in 2013).

Option 2

This option would decrease pension contributions for some employees with larger contributions from the government to employee TSP accounts. CBO describes this change similar to the shifts over recent decades from defined benefit to defined contribution retirement plans in many private sector companies and state governments.

It would decrease the FERS contribution rate to 0.8 percent for all employees (from 4.4 percent for employees hired after 2013 and from 3.1 percent for employees hired in 2013). This option may help in recruiting new federal employees and retaining current employees, however, it would increase the federal government’s net retirement costs by 10 percent over the next 10 years.

Option 3

Option 3 would change the current pension formula from calculations based on the High-3 salary to a High-5. This would decrease FERS pensions by basing the retirement benefit on 5 years of the highest salary. It would also decrease the government’s cost by one percent over the next 10 years.

Option 4

This option would eliminate the FERS pension and increase the government’s automatic TSP contribution to 8 percent salary. It would also require the government to match employee contributions up to an additional 7 percent.

Option 5

Option 5 would eliminate the FERS pension, increase the government’s automatic TSP contribution to 10 percent of salary and eliminate the governments’ matching contributions. This option would potentially have the biggest long-term savings for the government.

Most of these proposals would have a greater impact on new employees than those who are already employees.

There’s also no guarantee that Congress will adopt these changes.

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Agency Spotlight–Eliot Ness

agents

Eliot Ness is one of the most famous federal agents in the history of law enforcement. He and his team, the Untouchables, broke organized crime in Chicago, which was dubbed the “crime capital of the world”. They put away famous criminals and gangsters, including Al Capone and became so well known that a comic strip was based on their stories, and the famous character Dick Tracy was born.

He entered service in 1926, and by that time three of the Treasury Departments six law enforcement arms—Prohibition Unit, Coast Guard, and Customs—were working together, sharing information, and conducting joint operations against the organized crime threat.

During his 10 years with ATF, Ness demonstrated he possessed intelligence, ability, honesty, and integrity. After cleaning up Chicago, he went on to clean up two other cities with corrupt law enforcement agencies; Cleveland and Cincinnati. He resigned after 10 years and became the Cleveland Public Safety Director. Criminals completely controlled the liquor industry. Assassinations, bombs, bullets, and corruption were routine. Bootleggers and gangsters who forged close ties with local authorities were common. Chicago was one of those cities.

agentsNess’ Chicago Assignment

Al Capone all but owned Chicago. The collective force of 3,000 police officers and 300 prohibition agents couldn’t bring down his empire. 1930 brought two major events that not only changed the course of Ness’ career but also redirected the federal law enforcement trajectory; ATF’s legacy in particular.

  • The first was the Bureau of Prohibition was transferred from the U.S Department of Treasury to the U.S. Department of Justice. Their mission increasingly focused on fighting violent crime.
  • The Second was President Herbert Hoover declared war against Capone. It set into motion a two-armed investigative attack on Capone. One led by the Bureau of Prohibition Investigative Division Special Agent Eliot Ness—ordered to cripple Capone’s operations and gather evidence of prohibition violations. The second led by lawmen Elmer Irey and Frank Wilson of the Internal Revenue Service. They investigated Capone’s finances for evidence of money laundering and tax evasion.

The team damaged Capone’s organization and it led to the indictment of Al Capone on over 5,000 prohibition violations under the Volstead Act. They also went on to successfully apprehend many of Chicago’s notorious gangsters and bootleggers.

agentsCincinnati and Cleveland Assignments

In September 1933, Ness transferred from Chicago to Cincinnati as a Sr. Investigator. Prohibition ended on December 5, 1933, and the Bureau of Prohibition was reorganized as the Alcohol Beverage Unit briefly before being transferred back to the Treasury Department as the Alcohol Tax Unit.

ATU faced many challenges. The country wasn’t prepared to re-establish the legal liquor industry because criminals continued to illegally produce and distribute distilled spirits. Organized crime once again rose. ATU seized many alcohol distilleries in the first few months after its creation. They managed to bring down large liquor syndicates, changing the perception of federal law enforcement, as well as the attitudes of prosecutors, juries, and courts.

agentsIn December 1934, Cleveland had a need for a lawman like Eliot Ness. The city was infested with so much crime and corruption that it earned a reputation as an untamed town. He was 31 years old when he arrived as the Special Agent in Charge of the U.S. Department of Treasury’s ATU in the northern district of Ohio. Thirty-four agents were under his command and they tracked down, raided, and destroyed a string of illegal liquor operations, earning a reputation of taking down a still a day.

Ness would serve as Investigator in Charge of the Cleveland Office of ATU until January 1, 1936, when he resigned to become the Cleveland Public Safety Director. His new position put him in charge of police and fire departments where he successfully headed a campaign to clean up corruption and modernize both service institutions.

Today, Eliot Ness symbolizes that no matter how challenging the times, circumstances, or mission, the badge continues to represent the tradition of “untouchable” honesty, integrity, and ethical behavior for those who serve and protect.

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Minority Hiring Initiative

minority

Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, plans to launch a new initiative to improve diversity in foreign service. This includes a requirement that at least one minority candidate be considered for all ambassadorial positions.

He noted there was a significant gap between the racial makeup of the State Department and the American population. “We have a great diversity gap in the State Department. We need a State Department that reflects the American people, reflects who we are. The State Department must redouble our efforts to increase diversity at the highest ranks of the department, including at the ambassador level,” Tillerson said.

About 12 percent of senior Foreign Service officers are people of color, and that is “about the same” for the agency’s senior executive service contingent.

Tillerson has instructed staff that at least one minority must be considered and interviewed for every open ambassador position.

State Department Press Secretary, Heather Nauert said even if this plan doesn’t produce immediate results, it will advance the agency’s diversity goals in the future. “When we look at ambassadorial candidates, when we look at that pool, we want a minority represented in those interviews, to be interviewed for the job. And if they’re not ready for that position yet, that gives us the opportunity to know who they are and put them on our radar. And it helps us get them ready for the future,” she said.

Tillerson also announced he will retain “all of our fellowship and internship programs”. He plans to boost the agency’s recruitment efforts at college campuses, particularly historically black colleges, and universities.

He said, “While our diplomats in residence at Howard, Spellman, Morehouse, and Florida A&M do an outstanding job ensuring that people understand the opportunities at the State Department, there are more than 100 historically black colleges and universities, and there’s so much more we can do to raise awareness about the range of careers at State. We also want to expand our footprint at minority-focused job fairs, and we can do more to recruit from one of the most diverse and proven talent pools, as I mentioned: our U.S. Military.”

Nauert said she didn’t have a timeframe for when the agency will begin ramping up its recruitment efforts, but she did say the initiative is “important to the secretary”.

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Federal Civilian Pay Raise

civilian

President Trump has issued a pay plan for federal civilian employees, officially giving workers, a 1.9 percent raise in 2018. This includes a base increase of 1.4 percent and a 0.5 percent locality pay raise.

The president had until midnight August 31st to announce a pay raise. If he had not informed Congress of an alternative pay plan, a formula based increase automatically kicks in, in accordance with the 1990 Federal Employee Pay Comparability Act. Under this act, the base raise is determined by the change in Employment Cost Index minus 0.5 percent, which for 2018 would’ve been about 1.9 percent. This is also the amount President Trump proposed in his budget for next year.

According to the White House, the locality pay increase, as mandated by FEPCA, would’ve averaged 26.16 percent, and would’ve cost the government $26 billion. In Trump’s letter to Congress, he wrote, “A pay increase of this magnitude isn’t warranted, and federal agency budgets could not accommodate such an increase while still maintaining support for key federal priorities such as those that advance safety and security of the American people.”

Union Reactions

The president of the National Treasury Employees Union, Tony Reardon, said this pay raise isn’t enough and supports legislation in Congress to give employees a 3.2 percent pay raise in 2018. “NTEU believes this figure is too low especially because federal law calls for a 1.9 percent across-the-board raise and private sector wages are growing at an even faster rate,” he said. “Add to that, current proposals attacking the federal retirement system would result in a pay cut for federal workers.”

The president of the National Active and Retired Federal Employees Association, Richard Thissen, applauded the pay raise but said NARFE would continue to push for Congress to approve a larger increase next year. “While federal employees appreciate the raise, an average increase of 1.9 percent is the minimum required to prevent federal pay from declining further, and more rapidly, below market than the current 35 percent wage disparity between public- and private-sector wages,” he said. “Both Congress and the president should work together to pursue a more robust pay increase to maintain the highly qualified workforce needed to run an efficient federal government.”

Ultimately, Congress has the final say on how much federal employees will earn in 2018.

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Agency Spotlight–History of the ATF

revenue

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.

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Appeals Process Changing for Veterans

veterans

President Trump signed the Veterans Appeals Improvement and Modernization Act of 2017 and it is designed to “streamline the lengthy process that veterans undergo when appealing their claims for disability benefits” with the VA.

In theory, this is supposed to help veterans navigate the VA system and challenge rejected benefit claims. It’s also intended to reduce the appeals backlog with new approaches for veterans seeking benefits.

Phil Roe (R-TN), chairman of the House Committee of Veterans Affairs said, “The VA’s current appeals process is broken. Between FY2015-2017, the number of pending appeals increased from approximately 380,000 to 470,000—more than a 20 percent increase. Between FY2013-2016, Congress appropriated nearly $200 million more than the president’s request to address the appeals backlog. Despite the infusion of resources, VA estimates that it will take at least five years just to resolve the appeals currently pending.”

Within 90 days after the act has been enacted, the VA Secretary is to submit to the appropriate committees of Congress and Comptroller General, a comprehensive plan for processing legacy appeals and implementing the new appeals system.

This bill will also create three “lanes” for veterans’ appeals:

  • Local Higher-Level Review Lane—adjudicator reviews the same evidence considered by the original claims processor
  • New Evidence Lane—veteran can submit new evidence for review and have a hearing
  • Board Lane—jurisdiction for an appeal would transfer immediately to the Board of Veterans appeals

This bill will also give the Secretary authority to test the new system prior to full implementation and allow some veterans already going through the appeals process to opt into the new system.

It will also require the VA to provide a plan for implementing the new system and subsequent certifications by the Secretary that the department is prepared to implement changes.

Finally, it requires the Secretary to submit periodic reports to Congress, including information on how many appeals are pending in both the modernized system and the legacy system.

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Agency Spotlight–ATF

atf

This month we will be spotlighting the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF).

Mission

Their mission is to protect the public from crimes involving firearms, explosives, arson, and the diversion of alcohol and tobacco products. They do this by regulating lawful commerce in firearms and explosives and provide worldwide support to law enforcement, public safety, and industry partners.

They strive to protect communities from violent criminals, criminal organizations, illegal use and trafficking of firearms, illegal use and storage of explosives, acts of arson and bombings, acts of terrorism, and illegal diversion of alcohol and tobacco products.

The major functions of ATF are to reduce the risk to public safety caused by:

  • Illegal firearms trafficking
  • Criminal possession and use of firearms
  • Criminal organizations and gangs
  • Bombs and explosives
  • Criminal use of fire
  • Reducing the loss of tax revenues caused by contraband alcohol and tobacco trafficking

They also want to improve public safety by increasing compliance with Federal laws and regulations by firearms industry members and explosives industry members.

Vision

They strive to be a world class law enforcement organization committed to safeguarding lives by protecting the public from violent crime.

Values

ATF pledges an unwavering personal and organizational commitment to:

  • Preserving and protecting human life and public safety
  • Fairness and respect for the worth, dignity, and diversity of all people
  • Supporting the well-being of all members of the ATF family
  • Professionalism, honesty, integrity, accountability, ethical behavior, and excellence
  • Innovation, critical thinking, continuous learning, and development
  • Uphold the Constitution and laws of the U.S. in the pursuit of justice

Responsibilities

Their responsibilities include investigation and prevention of federal offenses involving the unlawful use, manufacture, and possession of firearms and explosives; acts of arsons and bombings; and illegal trafficking of alcohol and tobacco products. They also regulate licensing the sale, possession, and transportation of firearms, ammunition, and explosives in interstate commerce. Many of these activities are carried out in partnership with task forces made up of state and local law enforcement officers.

Divisions

Alcohol and Tobacco

The goal of ATF’s Alcohol and Tobacco Enforcement programs are the following:

  • Target, identify and dismantle criminal enterprises with ties to violent crime that traffic illicit liquor or contraband tobacco in interstate commerce.
  • Seize and deny their access to assets and funds.
  • Prevent their encroachment into the legitimate alcohol or tobacco industry.

Firearms

ATF targets, investigates, and recommends prosecution of these offenders to reduce the level of violent crimes and enhance public safety. They issue firearms licenses and conduct firearm licensee qualification and compliance inspections to curb illegal use of firearms and enforce federal firearms laws.

Explosives

Federal explosives law and regulations affect all persons who import, manufacture, deal in, purchase, use, store, or possess explosive materials. These regulations also affect those who ship, transport, or receive explosive materials.

Arson

ATF is the primary federal agency responsible for administering and enforcing criminal and regulatory provisions of federal laws pertaining to destructive bombs, explosives, and arson.

The next post about ATF will look at their history.

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