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Good for the ATF

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The recent shooting in Tucson and the continuing allegations that U.S. guns are fueling the increasingly violent Mexican drug wars have once again brought the ATF into the news.

It turns out that the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) has been without a permanent director since Carl Truscott was replaced in 2006 by the first of four acting directors and subsequently investigated for mismanagement and misconduct by the Inspector General of the Department of Justice.

And although the ATF has about 5,000 employees and an annual budget of over a billion dollars, its size has been stagnant and its budget has lagged behind that of other law enforcement agencies, at least according to a recent story on NPR. Former ATF special agent James Cavanaugh agrees: “In 1972, there was 2,500 agents. Thirty-nine years later, there’s 2,500 agents — no growth at all in 39 years.”

I say with all libertarians and freedom-loving Americans: Good for the ATF. Although we long for the agency to be abolished, in the mean time we can only hope that this trend continues and spreads to other agencies of the federal government.

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives, can be traced back to the Bureau of Prohibition during the 1920s when it was part of the Treasury Department. After moving to the Justice Department in 1930, it was moved back to Treasury after the repeal of the Volstead Act in 1933. Now called the Alcohol Tax Unit, it was part of the IRS until 1972, when, after more name changes, it was made a separate Treasury bureau and christened the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms. The addition of “and explosives” to the title occurred after 9/11 when the Department of Homeland Security was created and the ATF was moved back to the Department of Justice alongside its cousins the FBI and the DEA.

According to the ATF website, the agency is

a unique law enforcement agency in the United States Department of Justice that protects our communities from violent criminals, criminal organizations, the illegal use and trafficking of firearms, the illegal use and storage of explosives, acts of arson and bombings, acts of terrorism, and the illegal diversion of alcohol and tobacco products.

“We protect America,” it also states. Thank God the ATF protected us from the woman who sold untaxed cigarettes over the Internet by making sure she spent nine months in federal prison, followed by nine months in a halfway house, then supervised release for three years, plus the payment of $3.9 million in restitution to the federal government.

Thanks to Alexander Hamilton, a federal excise tax on tobacco was one of the earliest excise taxes in American history. It currently stands at $1.01 per pack for regular “class A” cigarettes. Larger “Class B” cigarettes are taxed twice as much. The tax rate on small cigars is the same as small cigarettes. Large cigars are taxed at 52.75 percent of the sales price, not to exceed 40 cents per cigar. Chewing tobacco, snuff, pipe tobacco, loose cigarette tobacco, and cigarette papers and tubes are also taxed. This is all in addition to state and local taxes on tobacco products, which can be quite high. In New York City the combined state and city tax on a pack of cigarettes is $4.85 per pack.

A federal excise tax on alcohol can also be traced back to Alexander Hamilton. A 1791 tax on whiskey was the first excise tax levied by the new national government under the Constitution. Although Hamilton and others considered a tax on whiskey to be a luxury tax that wouldn’t be too objectionable, the tax led to the Whiskey Rebellion of 1794. All distilled spirits are currently taxed in the amount of $2.14 for a 750ml bottle if it is 80 proof. Alcohol with a higher proof is taxed at a greater amount. There is also a federal excise tax on beer and wine. The tax on beer is 5 cents a can (12 oz.). The tax on wine starts at 21 cents a bottle (750ml) for wine with an alcohol content of 14 percent or less and goes up as the alcohol content of the wine goes up.

Taxes on tobacco and alcohol are typically called sin taxes. Public health officials are in favor of sin taxes on these products because they feel it leads to a decrease in the smoking and alcoholism rates. Some religious groups also favor sin taxes because they feel it leads to a decrease in sinful practices. Others favor sin taxes because they feel it leads to the reduction of socially undesirable behavior. The government favors sin taxes because it feels it needs the revenue raised from the taxes to function. But this puts the government in the position of wanting people to partake of an undesirable substance that it is simultaneously trying to discourage the use of.

Sin taxes lead to black markets and smuggling. They are also regressive in nature; that is, there is an inverse relationship between the tax rate and the taxpayer’s income. And the burden of the tax falls the most on those with lowest incomes.

But as bad as smoking and drinking might be to one’s health and morals, and whatever negative social consequences, premature deaths, addiction, and financial burdens they might cause, it is still not the business of government — and especially the federal government — to try to discourage their use through sin taxes, mandatory warning labels, advertising restrictions, etc. A government with the power to regulate or prohibit the manufacture or sale harmful substances is a government with the power to regulate or prohibit the manufacture or sale any substance.

In the free society envisioned by libertarians, it is families, friends, churches, temperance organizations, faith-based organizations, religious ministries, rescue missions, Alcoholics Anonymous-type programs, physicians, psychologists, and addiction treatment centers that would help people make informed decisions about the moral, social, physical consequences of smoking and drinking.

In such a free society, tobacco and alcohol would be advertised just as any other product. Warning labels would be voluntary. There would be no government regulations on the amount of nicotine in cigarettes or the volume of alcohol in beer, wine, or distilled spirits. There would be no government licensing of liquor dealers or government-owned liquor stores. There would be no government drinking age of twenty-one when people are legally recognized as adults at eighteen. There would be no government undercover sting operations to try and get store clerks to sell alcohol to minors. There would be only voluntary minimum ages for alcohol purchases set by individual stores. There would be no government drunk driving laws since they criminalize the content of one’s breath or blood instead of actual harm done. There would be no government decreed “dry” counties. There would be no government restrictions on what days or times of the day alcohol could be purchased. Individual stores would alone determine restrictions.

But on the other hand, smokers and drinkers in a free society would have to assume full responsibility for their actions. There would be no frivolous lawsuits against tobacco companies for voluntarily using their product, no excuses for causing harm to others because one was under the influence of alcohol, and no taxpayer paid medical care for the negative health effects of smoking or treatment for alcohol abuse.

Since the passage of the Gun Control Act of 1968, the primary focus of the ATF has been on enforcing the federal laws that take away Americans’ gun rights. This has been especially true since 2003 when revenue collection from alcohol and tobacco taxes as well as regulatory functions related to the production of alcohol were transferred to a new federal agency, the Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB). There is currently a 10 percent federal excise tax on pistols and revolvers and an 11 percent tax on other firearms and ammunition.

The ATF enforces the National Firearms Act of 1934, the Gun Control Act of 1968, the Firearms Owner’s Protection Act of 1986, the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act of 1993, and the Omnibus Crime Control Act of 1994.

But the ATF is better known for other things. The ATF had a hand in the debacles in the 1990s at Ruby Ridge and the Waco. The NRA once published an ad portraying ATF agents as jack-booted thugs. Unfortunately, although the NRA came out against the president’s most recent nomination to head the ATF, it was not because the nominee was to head an agency that shouldn’t exist.

Why didn’t Republicans, most of whom claim to be supporters of gun rights and the Second Amendment, abolish the ATF or greatly curtail its authority? They had a majority in Congress for over four years of Bush’s presidency. The reason is the same as the reason why they didn’t repeal the anti-gun legislation mentioned above. Although Republicans loudly proclaim their support for gun rights during election campaigns, they are not the allies of libertarians when it comes to real gun freedom.

In a free society like mentioned above, there would be real gun freedom. Guns would be advertised just as any other product. There would be no government licensing of gun dealers. There would be no frivolous lawsuits against gun dealers. There would be no government decreed minimum age to buy a gun. There would be no government restrictions on gun purchases, magazine capacity, gun barrel length, types of ammunition, types of guns, or calibers of guns. There would be no government regulations regarding trigger locks or storage procedures. There might be voluntary waiting periods, voluntary background checks, voluntary minimum ages, and/or voluntary gun free zones — depending on the store or the property owner. In other words, things would be as they were before the federal government started to infringe upon the right to keep and bear arms in the twentieth century.

In a free society, there would be no ATF. Even in a slightly less than ideal society such as our constitutional republic, but where the government strictly followed the Constitution, there would be no ATF since the federal government has no constitutional authority to regulate, restrict, or ban alcohol, tobacco, or firearms.

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