About the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) is one of the most storied and effective law enforcement agencies in the federal government. Composed of almost 5,000 employees which includes about 2,400 Special Agents, the ATF has been involved in many of the nation’s most important criminal investigations, law enforcement operations and national security programs. This vital agency has proven to be a critical component of the country’s national security apparatus by stemming the flow of illegal arms and narcotics, apprehending criminal offenders and dismantling major international criminal and terrorist organizations.

With a history that stretches back more than a century, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives has played a key role in major law enforcement initiatives like Prohibition and the War on Drugs. The ATF has also taken a lead role in major organized crime investigations, as well as many of the most highly publicized bombing incidents of recent decades. Among the most important operations under the authority of the ATF has been the Project Safe Neighborhoods, which identified, apprehended and prosecuted more than 10,000 offenders a year. This vital program has helped reduce crime in many American communities by charging suspects with violent crime, firearms offenses and narcotics charges.

Since the attacks on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, the ATF has performed a variety of duties that have strengthened national security and enhanced the safety of the American public. As the country’s most experienced and knowledgeable agency on explosives, the ATF has taken a lead role in examining and analyzing bombs and incendiary devices which have been used to inflict bodily harm and property damage. The bureau is almost always involved when a major explosive device is found or used, including Improvised Explosive Devices (IED) used in war zones and domestically. The ATF regularly deploys experts to the many bomb squad schools around the country that train and equip local and state bomb response units.

The current director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives is B. Todd Jones, who was appointed to head the agency by President Barack Obama in 2013. Director Jones heads the 5,000 person agency which has offices in major cities throughout the United States as well as in Canada, Iraq, Mexico, El Salvador, Columbia and the Caribbean.

The primary mission objectives of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives are

  • Deterring illegal firearms trafficking
  • Identification, analysis and neutralization of explosive devices
  • Dismantling of domestic and international organizations which traffic in narcotics and deadly weapons
  • Prevent and investigation of fires and arsons

These functions are facilitated by the almost 2,400 ATF Special Agents who are among the most elite law enforcement personnel in the nation. ATF agents have some of the broadest authority of any law enforcement officers including enforcement of any federal law or statute. Special Agents may take the lead in any investigation involving narcotics or weapons, as well as tobacco products. In order to fulfill its responsibilities, all ATF Special Agents must obtain Top Secret clearance or one of the highest security clearances available to federal law enforcement officials, Top Secret/Sensitive Compartmented Information (TS/SCI). In addition to passing one of the most stringent personal history screening processes, ATF Special Agents must also pass a rigorous physical fitness selection process which weeds out all but the most qualified candidates.


Although the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives is a relatively new agency, it can trace its roots back to predecessors more than a century ago. The first incarnation of an agency that monitored and collected revenue from tobacco and alcohol products was the Revenue Laboratory which was formed in 1886 and was a part of the U.S. Department of the Treasury.

The concept of an enforcement agency that enforced laws related to these products did not truly manifest until the 1920’s when alcohol Prohibition went into effect. The bureau of Prohibition was formed within the Bureau of Internal Revenue in 1920. Up until 1933 when Prohibition was repealed, the BOP enforced many of the laws related to Prohibition. It was during this period that Eliot Ness and his squad of “Untouchables” battled organized crime in Chicago. Shortly, thereafter in 1942, the Alcohol Tax Unit was given responsibility for also enforcing firearms laws.

Up until 1972, while the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms was a part of the Treasury Department, this agency was the primary agency for collecting taxes on alcohol and tobacco. In 1972 the agency was overhauled and became primarily focused on violent crime using lethal firearms and explosives.

Following the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001, Congress passed the Homeland Security Act of 2002. This transferred the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms to the Department of Justice and added the appellation “and Explosives.” The Homeland Security Act transferred the tax collection duties to a new bureau within the Treasury Department, leaving the ATF to focus entirely on criminal and terrorist activities.

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ATF Jurisdiction & Investigative Priorities