Abolishing ATF Might Undermine One of the
Best Tools for Hobbling Federal Gun Laws

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By Kurt Hofmann, March 11th 2015, 2014
JPFO writer contributor, © 2014.


B. Todd Jones, BATFE Director

With the latest outrageous behavior on the part of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (BATFE), specifically the agency's announced wish to ban the enormously popular M855 "green tip" 5.56x45mm NATO ammunition, and the blatantly false pretenses under which they are attempting to justify such a ban (Update: The BATFE, and by extension the Obama administration, appears as of yesterday afternoon to be retreating from the proposed ban), there has been a renewal of interest in just flat out abolishing the agency. A week ago today, Representative Jim Sensenbrenner (R-WI) introduced legislation to abolish the BATFE and transfer its gun law enforcement responsibilities (and some others) to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and its alcohol and tobacco regulation work to the Drug Enforcement Administration.

To those of us familiar with the long train of abuses perpetrated by the BATFE against the American people, and with the fact that the reason for the very existence of the agency is for the enforcement of blatantly unconstitutional "laws," H.R. 1329, the "ATF Elimination Act," as it will apparently be titled, might sound like just what the doctor ordered for treatment of the horrible affliction of "gun control." Indeed, JPFO has itself long urged America's gun owners to get behind the campaign to "Boot the BATFE."

Jim Sensenbrenner

As undeniably satisfying as that would be, though, I argue that actually accomplishing that goal might fairly be described as "winning the battle, but losing the war." It all comes down to something from the previous paragraph--something worth repeating: " . . . the reason for the very existence of the agency is for the enforcement of blatantly unconstitutional 'laws.'" There is no reason to anticipate the imminent repeal of the unconstitutional federal gun laws (which is basically another way of saying all federal gun laws). Rep. Sensenbrenner's bill, as well-intended as it undoubtedly is, certainly would not do so, and indeed would transfer enforcement of federal gun laws to the far larger, better funded, and more powerful FBI. As tireless liberty advocate Mike Vanderboegh has long argued, "I tell you now, I far prefer the devil I know in rehab than the devil I don't running free with even greater power operating behind a cloak of invisibility, immunity and impunity."

Some might argue that the FBI is less evil, less corrupt, and less prone to sadistic predation on the American people. Perhaps--but is that all the higher we are going to set the bar? It was not the BATFE, after all, but FBI sniper Lon Horiuchi who murdered an unarmed Vicky Weaver at Ruby Ridge, while she held her 10-month-old baby. When the federal government incinerated scores of men, women, and children alive at Waco, it was not the BATFE, but the FBI who orchestrated the massacre (although the FBI did "honor" their little brothers and sisters of the smaller agency, by running up the BATFE flag over the still-smoking remains of their victims). In short, going from unconstitutional gun laws being enforced by the BATFE, to having the same unconstitutional gun laws enforced by the FBI, is not an upgrade for liberty.

And there's another reason that disbanding the BATFE would move things in precisely the wrong direction. The Tenth Amendment Center blog wrote last week of a bill in Ohio that would prohibit state or local involvement with enforcement of any new federal gun laws. According to the Huffington Post, Ohio is not alone:

Conservative lawmakers in at least 11 states are pushing legislation that would prevent state law enforcement from enforcing some or all federal gun restrictions. Proponents of these bills are emboldened by the success of marijuana legalization at the state level and claim that federal law enforcement is stretched too thin to stop them.

This kind of legislation is not as satisfying the various "Firearms Freedom Act" laws passed by more than a few states in recent years, and still being considered in others--legislation that declares many federal gun laws (including many already on the books) null and void with regard to guns, ammunition, and shooting accessories manufactured within the state that has such a law, and not intended for sale outside the state (on the grounds that items that do not move in interstate commerce cannot be regulated by the federal government). Some of these laws even provide for the arrest and prosecution of federal officials trying to enforce these federal gun laws. The federal court system, unfortunately but also unsurprisingly, takes a rather dim view of such acts of defiance by the states, as does the federal executive branch.

Laws preventing state and local cooperation in the enforcement of such federal laws, on the other hand, have some case precedent to fall back on, as the same Huffington Post article cited above points out:

Eugene Volokh, a law professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, said that bills like the one in Montana could have effects beyond a simple symbolic statement. In 1997, the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed in Printz v. United States that the federal government cannot force local chief law enforcement officers to fulfill federal tasks. And the resources of the federal government are stretched thin. In that sense, backers of these bills say they are relying on the same reasoning that allows states to flout the federal ban on marijuana possession.

That description of the federal government's law enforcement resources as "stretched thin" is the key. The BATFE, as a far smaller agency than the FBI, will always be more subject to that "overstretching." It also has fewer friends in Congress who will fight for its budget. Without state and local law enforcement agencies to help them in their dirty work, a great deal of that dirty work will simply not get done, and the more their budget can be pared down, the more deeply will the BATFE feel the bite of that lack of cooperation. We can "starve the beast," especially this beast, as compared to any that would take over its role if the BATFE were to be abolished. The BATFE is an obscenity, and I want it gone, but first, I want the obscenities it exists to enforce abolished. Until that happens, let's leave those laws in the incompetent hands of the BATFE.


A former paratrooper, Kurt Hofmann was paralyzed in a car accident in 2002. The helplessness inherent to confinement to a wheelchair prompted him to explore armed self-defense, only to discover that Illinois denies that right, inspiring him to become active in gun rights advocacy. He also writes the St. Louis Gun Rights Examiner column. Kurt Hofmann Archive.

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