ATF under the Gun

Article excerpt

They are detested, and I have described them properly as jackbooted American fascists." The speaker is Rep. John Dingell, a Michigan Democrat. His subject: the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.

In the wake of the notorious Waco and Ruby Ridge incidents -- in which the ATF was involved in deadly confrontations at the Branch Davidian compound in Texas and the home of white separatist Randy Weaver in Idaho -- the Treasury Department agency has been the butt of public outrage. Gun advocates have been especially fierce in their denunciations of the bureau. In April, the powerful National Rifle Association sent out a fund-raising letter written by Executive Vice President Wayne Lapierre reiterating the "jackbooted American thugs" phrase and comparing ATF agents to Nazis.

The letter prompted former President George Bush to resign his lifetime membership to protest the association's "vicious slander." Also in April, talk-radio host G. Gordon Liddy stirred matters further by calling federal agents "sons of bitches" and advising his listeners to defend themselves against illegal raids by shooting agents in the body or groin.

Even before these contretemps, Congress was calling for hearings on alleged ATF miscondnct. There the debate degenerated into haggling as well. Pennsylvania Republican Arlen Specter, chairman of the Senate Judiciary subcommittee on Terrorism, Technology and Government Information, wanted to link the hearings to the Clinton administration's recently proposed counterterrorism bill. Utah Republican Orrin Hatch, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee and the man who first proposed hearings on Waco, believed such a link would be inappropriate. He and Specter exchanged angry letters in early May accusing each other of political opportunism. The hearings probably occur, but not for several

In the midst of the ongoing controversy, the country was shaken by the April 19 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. The ATF had an office in the building and the date of the terrorist attack coincided with the second anniversary of the Waco raid. The ensuing arrest of bombing suspect Timothy McVeigh cast the spotlight on the growing phenomenon of "milifias," which view the government -- particularly the ATF -- as an imminent threat to their rights and liberties. Recently, rumors began circulating that ATF agents had prior knowledge of the attack and left the building to save their own skins. Though no evidence supports such dark speculations, they highlight the disfavor into which the bureau has fallen.

Does the ATF deserve its bad rap? Some critics on both the Right and Left see the bureau as a symptom of a larger problem. They believe the fundamental problem lies not with any individual law-enforcement agency, but rather with a government that has failed to exercise oversight and demand accountability from the agencies under its control.

"Waco and Randy Weaver may have happened under Clinton, but they began under Bush," says David Kopel, research director of the Independence Institute, a free-market think tank in Colorado. He is writing a book about the Waco debacle. "George Bush wanted to appear very law-and-order, so he kept a hands-off policy on law enforcement. The ATF went wild. All the bad apples came out."

The ATF was founded in 1791 to collect tax on whiskey; in the 1930s, it was called the Bureau of Prohibition. The 1968 Gun Control Act granted the agency broader powers to enforce stricter gun laws. In 1982, however, a Senate investigation concluded that a large number of ATF's actions mistakenly target law-abiding citizens. Since then, complaints about the ATF have continued, although at a slower pace than might be imagined; in 1994, ATF issued 10,000 arrest warrants that resulted in 229 lawsuits. Of those, 179 were resolved in favor of the agents.

"People need to remember that we're the good guys, we're not the bad guys," says Tom Hill, an ATF spokesman. …