Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms

Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms
Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (BATF) is a tax-collecting, enforcement, and regulatory arm of the U.S. Department of the Treasury. It is the government agency with responsibility for administering America’s federal alcohol, tobacco, and firearms laws, as well as federal laws relating to commercial arson and explosives. It is because of its role in regulating these areas—especially the nation’s firearms laws—that the BATF has often been embroiled in allegations of conspiracy.

BATF headquarters are in Washington, D.C., but most of its personnel and many of its operations are decentralized in regional offices throughout the United States, and even a few stations overseas.

The bureau traces its roots back to the 1790s, but its earliest twentieth-century form is to be found in the Prohibition Unit established within the Bureau of Internal Revenue of the Treasury Department in 1920 to enforce the ban on the manufacture and sale of alcohol enacted by the Eighteenth Amendment and the Volstead Act in 1919. (The most famous member of the Prohibition Unit was Elliot Ness, the “T-man” who helped topple Chicago mobster Al Capone on tax-evasion charges.) The agency has undergone many changes of name and responsibilities since the 1920s, and it was given its present title in 1972.

Suspicions about the BATF’s alleged involvement in conspiratorial activities have been particularly pronounced since the passage of the Gun Control Act in 1968, which gave the agency extra responsibilities for enforcing the nation’s gun laws. Indeed, it is matters connected with gun regulation such as licensing, gun tracing, illegal firearms possession, and transportation rather than any of its other responsibilities that have provoked the most controversy and concern.

The BATF has often been attacked by gun rights organizations such as the National Rifle Association, Gun Owners of America, the Citizens Committee for the Right to Keep and Bear Arms, Jews for the Preservation of Firearms Ownership, and, since the mid-1990s, various parts of the militia movement, for example. Such groups routinely criticize the BATF as an “out-of-control,” “rogue agency” harassing innocent gun owners and dealers.

Nor are they alone in this. In 1995, Representative Harold Volkmer called the BATF “One of the most Rambo-rogue law enforcement agencies in the United States” (Spitzer, 128). Some gun rights advocates even go so far as to portray the bureau as an organization filled with agents whose real, if hidden, purpose is to disarm the United States.

During the 1990s, the BATF was subject to other conspiratorial accusations largely as a consequence of its involvement in the events at Ruby Ridge in Idaho in 1991 and Waco, Texas, in 1993. The BATF was the agency that entrapped Randy Weaver into selling an illegal sawn-off shotgun to one of its undercover informants in January 1991 in the hope of turning Weaver into an informer against the white-supremacist Aryan Nations group. It was also the agency responsible for the initial raid on the Mount Carmel complex on 28 February 1993 in an attempt to serve a search warrant on David Koresh, in which four BATF agents and five Branch Davidians were killed.

For much of the Patriot movement, the actions of the BATF (along with those of the FBI) at Ruby Ridge and Waco were evidence of the dangerous and threatening militarization of U.S. law enforcement. They were seen as pointing the way toward a planned crackdown on the rights of gun owners and of dissident voices in the United States in general.

In the spring of 1995 there were widespread rumors that BATF raids to arrest militia leaders and other prominent Patriots were being planned for 25 March. Although some Patriots such as Linda Thompson of the American Justice Federation and “Acting Adjunct General” of the Unorganized Militia of the United States dismissed the rumors as a hoax, others, including Jon Roland of the Texas Constitutional Militia, and the publications the Spotlight and the Resister, regarded the raids as the beginning of the federal government’s planned oppression and a possible prelude to a declaration of martial law throughout the United States.

Representative Steve Stockman wrote to Attorney General Janet Reno with his concerns on 22 March. No BATF raid occurred, but another person who responded to the rumors was Timothy McVeigh; they were instrumental in convincing McVeigh to carry out the Oklahoma City bombing of 19 April 1995.

There are other, more specific conspiracy theories surrounding the BATF’s involvement with the events at Waco. For example, Linda Thompson’s video Waco II: The Big Lie Continues alleges that three of the four BATF agents who died in the initial raid on Mount Carmel had been bodyguards to President Clinton, and that these agents had been shot “execution style” during the “cover” provided by the raid in order to stop them from revealing what they knew about his activities (Stern, 63).

Another conspiratorial explanation for the failure of the initial raid on the Branch Davidians has been posited by the Waco Holocaust Electronic Museum. It regards the deaths of the four BATF agents as a pretext to justify the subsequent siege of the religious sect so that a national response plan for a future military and police occupation of U.S. society could be tested.

A Treasury Department report into the events at Waco was highly critical of the BATF’s mishandling of the initial raid and of misleading post-raid statements made by some of the bureau’s supervisors. An investigation by Special Counsel John C. Danforth issued in November 2000 concluded that government agents did not engage in a massive conspiracy and cover-up at Waco.

One of the reasons why Timothy McVeigh chose to bomb the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City was his hatred of the BATF, a hatred that stemmed both from the agency’s role in enforcing America’s firearms laws and its specific involvement with events at Ruby Ridge and Waco.

McVeigh’s criteria for a potential “attack site” required that it be a government building housing at least two of three federal law enforcement agencies from the BATF, FBI, and the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). The Murrah Building contained the regional offices of the BATF, the DEA, and—a “bonus” in McVeigh’s view—the Secret Service.

The BATF was one of the agencies responsible for investigating the Oklahoma City bombing and for securing the conviction of McVeigh and his coconspirator Terry Nichols. Yet for many members of the Patriot movement and other conspiracists the BATF is itself implicated in the bombing.

Conspiracy theories expressed by many Patriot groups contend that the BATF had prior warning of the bombing, but chose not to do anything about it, other than make sure that its own agents weren’t in their offices at the time when the bomb (or bombs) went off; that the bombing was a sting operation that went wrong and which has been subsequently covered up; and that McVeigh was a BATF “patsy” being used as part of a larger plan to use the bombing to oppress gun-owners, militia members, and other Patriots.