Today the ATF remains as unpopular as ever. The bureau insists it targets only illegal firearms, but some gun rights advocates believe the agency is a threat to legal gun ownership. In the ’90s, the National Rifle Association referred to ATF agents as “Jack-booted government thugs.”
“Public safety is the reason we exist; it’s not to take people’s guns,” said Deputy Director Thomas Brandon, a career agent who sat down for his first television interview to detail the ATF’s mission. “It’s to regulate firearms that can be misused. You know, we’re a small agency with a big job.”
But the ATF is not nearly small enough for its legions of opponents, who never tire of reminding people of two spectacular ATF failures: The 1993 violent showdown between the Branch Davidian religious cult and federal agents in Waco, Texas; and, in 2009, the ATF program to track and arrest gun traffickers called “Fast and Furious,” which lost track of hundreds of guns sold to known criminals.
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