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Abolish the ATF

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Tags Decentralization and SecessionLegal System

07/10/2017

Although Donald Trump portrayed himself as an anti-gun control candidate on the campaign trail, the president apparently has no problem with sending federal agents into Chicago to more fiercely enforce gun laws. 

The New York Times reported late last month that the Trump administration has sent in federal agencies to partner with local law enforcement in Chicago, in order to confiscate more guns:

Anthony Riccio, the chief of the Police Department’s Bureau of Organized Crime, said the new team would “significantly help our efforts to trace and stop the flow of illegal guns.”

The phrase "illegal guns" makes it sound like we're only dealing with very sinister elements within society. But in Chicago, where gun control laws are among the most stringent in the country, the phrase "illegal guns" might as well be interpreted as "most guns, whether owned by peaceful people or not." 

Thus, it appears that the Trump administration is using federal agents to assist local politics in what is one of the most anti-gun jurisdictions in the nation. And, not coincidentally, it's one of the most violent jurisdictions. 

At the same time, as pointed out by Anti-Media, "There has yet to be any outcry from conservative or gun rights groups over Trump’s federalized gun grab in Chicago. Can you imagine what would have happened if Obama had done this?"

Trump's contradictory stance on gun control is a time-honored tactic of Republican presidents. When George W. Bush was running for president, he announced "This nation must enforce the gun laws which exist on the books." and pledged more aggressive enforcement. 

As President, Bush did indeed pursue more prosecutions which led to the pro-gun control organization Americans for Gun Safety approvingly concluding that "the Bush Administration has made progress" on enforcing federal gun laws, including those against mere possession of a gun while violating federal drug laws. This, of course, could bring draconian prison sentences for anyone in possession of a gun while engaged in the heinous crime of growing marijuana plants. 

With his current pledge to help the City of Chicago confiscate more guns, Trump appears to be pursuing a similarly bad policy. 

An Agency for Taxation and Prohibition

At the center of these policies is the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms  (ATF), which is essentially a regulatory bureaucracy that oversees federal regulations on firearms, and also on the illegal trafficking of alcohol and tobacco. 

The agency's attention is mostly directed toward prohibitionism, taxation, and regulation. Little of the agency's attention goes toward investigation and prosecution of actual violent crimes. 

The agency began as a revenue-collection agency in the late 19th century. Like many other federal agencies, the introduction of alcohol prohibition in the 1920s greatly expanded the agency's role. After prohibition failed, the agency became the "Alcohol Tax Unit," and in the 1950s also gained powers over tobacco regulation and taxation. It wasn't until the late 1960s that the federal government began to greatly expand its role in regulation of firearms regulation. Later, the federal government invented new federal laws against certain types of explosives, further expanding the powers and roles of what by then was called the ATF. 

During all of this time, real violent crimes such as homicide and arson were always illegal at the state and local, and so the addition of the ATF did little more than add an additional layer of law enforcement and an expansion of the numbers and types of federal crimes that were to be prosecuted in federal courts. 

Naturally, this also meant ongoing growth in federal spending for the agency, which now totals more than a billion dollars per year. 

Noting that the ATF fills no unique role or area of competence among federal agencies, Wisconsin Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner introduced legislation in Congress in January to abolish the ATF, explaining: 

Despite our country being trillions of dollars in debt, government spending continues to rise. Common sense budgeting solutions are necessary, and the ATF Elimination Act is one measure we can take to reduce spending, redundancy, and practice responsible governance. The ATF is a scandal-ridden, largely duplicative agency that has been branded by failure and lacks a clear mission.

Sensenbrenner could have also mentioned that the ATF is the organization responsible for the Fast and Furious debacle in which ATF agents engaged in gun trafficking for Mexican cartels. If that weren't enough to illustrate the abuse and incompetence endemic to the organization, we can also recall that the ATF was the central agency in the Waco massacre of 1993, during which, James Bovard concludes

there is ample evidence the ATF started the gun battle. ATF agent Roland Ballesteros, one of the first agents out of the cattle trailer during the raid, later told the Texas Rangers that he believed federal agents fired the first shots–perhaps to kill five dogs that could have bitten the agents. As early as 36 hours after the initial raid, the feds abandoned routine law enforcement procedure to avoid gathering potentially embarrassing evidence of their conduct early in the raid. According to a confidential September 17, 1993 Treasury Department memo, the ATF had initiated a shooting review on March 1 and “immediately determined that these stories [of agents involved] did not add up.”

The botched raid would eventually lead to the deaths of 76 people, including numerous women and children. 

Sensenbrenner's legislation, unfortunately, is far too tame. It calls for the FBI and the DEA to take over the ATF's activities and to continue with prosecutions of alcohol and gun-related activities prohibited by federal law. 

RELATED: "Abolish the FBI" by Ryan McMaken

A far better solution would be to abolish the ATF's activities along with the ATF itself. After all, many of the federal crimes the fall under the ATF's purview only became federal matters at all in the past 50 years. Prior to that time, ATF matters were either state-level matters, or were not crimes at all. 

Somehow, the United States survived the first half of the 20th century without the ATF to regulate everyone's gun and alcohol purchases. 

First Steps in Ending the ATF 

The Trump administration's apparent enthusiasm for sending the ATF into Chicago to "assist" local law enforcement is most unfortunate precisely because it is an affirmative step in exactly the wrong direction. 

The Trump administration and Congress should be taking immediate steps to reduce the agency's role.

As a first step, the administration should announce that the agency will focus only on actual violent crimes, and will be ignoring all non-violent activities such as illegal alcohol sales or illegal gun sales. Most of these activities amount to little more than a revenue collection scheme. States would still be free to engage in these law-enforcement activities, of course. This would simply be the end of federal involvement. 

Supporters of the agency will naturally complain that the agency must enforce "all laws." But, this has always been a nonsense claim since resources are always limited and every agency must prioritize. Thus, since some money has already been budgeted to the agency for the current budget year, let the agency focus exclusively on real crime. 

The second step comes during the next budget process: de-fund the agency. 

This doesn't even require legislation formally abolishing the agency. Simply stop giving the agency money. Few agents will show up to work without the hefty paychecks they're used to. If Congress wants to do some real good, they can put the ATF's budget toward reducing the huge annual budget deficit. 

And finally, the agency should be formally abolished, although so long as it's not funded, its existence on the books doesn't really matter. 

In response to any concerted effort to abolish the agency, of course, we'll hear all the usual arguments in favor of federal law enforcement agencies. But, as I noted in a recent article calling for the abolition of the FBI, federal law-enforcement agencies have always been both redundant and unnecessary: 

The advocates for national police also often claim that without a national police force, the individual states of the US would be overrun by criminals. The US states are too small and weak, we are told, to mount any effective opposition to sophisticated crime operations. 

So, by this reasoning, small countries should have more criminal activity than larger, more powerful countries. 

But where's the evidence for this? Is Switzerland crime infested while much-larger Mexico is crime free? Nope. Does Poland have sky-high homicide rates while much-more-powerful Russia is serenely peaceful? Wrong again. Indeed, no relationship whatsoever has been demonstrated between the size and scope of a country's regime, and the amount of crime it has. Brazil, after all, is an immense state both in geography and in regulatory vigor. Yet crime there is a major problem. 

Moreover, even if there were some optimum minimum size for countries (which there is not) many US states have more than enough wealth, population, and power to fund immense police operations. 

Texas, for instance, has approximately the same GDP and population size as Australia. If Australia is not ruled by drug runners and terrorists — as we're supposed to believe would happen to Texas without the FBI — why is Texas too small to obtain the same level and quality of law enforcement? With more than 20 million inhabitants, Florida and New York have GDPs similar to those of a mid-sized European country. Pennsylvania has a GDP equal to that of Switzerland. California has both a population and a GDP larger than that of Canada. 

Moreover, without the FBI not even very small US states would be on their own since no FBI is necessary to coordinate information-sharing between states. INTERPOL, of course, has been around for decades as a body that helps police organizations share information and apprehend suspects. INTERPOL itself, however, has no agents who make arrests, and INTERPOL's budget is much, much smaller than that of the FBI.

Not even the European Union has gone so far as to create a police force that resembles the FBI in its vast power. Europol, like INTERPOL, assists in coordination among police agencies, but Europol officers do not conduct independent investigations in member countries as the FBI does in American states. Europol's budget is only a small fraction of the FBI's. 

The same principles apply at least as much to the ATF as to the FBI. At least the FBI sometimes investigates and prosecutes real crimes such as kidnapping and human trafficking. The ATF is most notable for regulating peaceful activities, collecting tax revenue, burning women and children alive, and selling guns to Mexican drug cartels. The agency's disappearance would hardly be a blow to American peace and freedom. 

Ryan McMaken (@ryanmcmaken) is the editor of Mises Wire and The Austrian. Send him your article submissions, but read article guidelines first. Ryan has degrees in economics and political science from the University of Colorado, and was the economist for the Colorado Division of Housing from 2009 to 2014. He is the author of Commie Cowboys: The Bourgeoisie and the Nation-State in the Western Genre.

Note: The views expressed on Mises.org are not necessarily those of the Mises Institute.
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