Missing the Point about ATF

July 25, 1995

The National Rifle Association is the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms' best friend. By waging a vicious, ugly and largely false campaign of calumny against the federal agency, the NRA has unintentionally deflected attention from valid criticisms of ATF that deserve serious attention.

The agency is deeply troubled. It may well prove that the botched raid on the Branch Davidian complex in Waco two years ago was a symptom of the agency's problems, not the major issue its foes in Congress and the pro-gun organizations make it out to be. Not that Waco should be ignored, but it should not be mythicized by paranoid fantasy.

ATF has its share of bad apples. Maybe more than its share. Some of its problems are at the top. Waco and other incidents are clearly traceable to weak, ill-trained leadership. However justified the attempt to arrest David Koresh and seize his cache of illegal weapons, the raid was badly planned and executed. Even as congressional committees opened hearings on Waco, it was disclosed that ATF agents were deeply involved in a despicable "good ol' boys' roundup" with racist entertainment. Again, this incident may be more significant as one example of widespread racism in the agency than as an outrage in itself.

The problem with mustering indignation at these contemptible incidents is the way they are being used as political weapons by outfits like the NRA, which are less concerned about the particular evils they are exposing than they are with crippling ATF. It's no accident that the evidence of the racism at the "rodeo" was supplied by a militia outfit which fed photographs to the NRA.

Gross exaggerations about "jackbooted thugs" and Gestapo-like tactics obscure two facts: ATF has a lot of dedicated, professional agents whose principal concern is law enforcement, but it also has inept supervisors, throwbacks to its past history as federal "revenooers" and a good ol' boy culture in some offices that went out of style decades ago. That is what the congressional investigators should be focusing on, not the superheated rhetoric being dispensed by radical rightists and gun nuts whose sole objective is destroying an agency which has an important role in federal law enforcement.

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