The Trump administration’s 2020 budget would force the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives to give up its longtime work regulating alcohol and tobacco.
The proposal would transfer regulatory duties relating to alcohol and tobacco from the ATF to the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau in the Department of the Treasury. The reorganization would “enable ATF to hone its focus on activities that protect U.S. communities from violent criminals and criminal organizations,” the budget document states.
The ATF already directs the vast majority of its resources to firearms enforcement. In 2017, the last fiscal year for which data is available, the ATF began 35,302 criminal firearm cases; 2,041 arson cases; 1,073 explosives cases, and just 91 cases dealing with alcohol or tobacco. Policymakers and advocates across the ideological spectrum have suggested breaking up the bureau in the past: In 2015, the Center for American Progress, a Democratic-aligned think tank, suggested splitting the ATF’s alcohol and tobacco related functions off from the rest of the Bureau and merging the firearm and explosives divisions into the FBI. Last year, the Trump administration included a similar proposal in its fiscal year 2019 budget, which did not pass.
However, the Democratic-controlled House is unlikely to pass the proposal. Representative Jose Serrano, who chairs the appropriations subcommittee charged with funding the Department of Justice, opposes the measure. “We rejected this proposal last year and there is little interest in pursuing it this year,” Serrano said in an emailed statement.
The Trump administration has prioritized enforcing federal gun laws. An analysis by The Appeal found federal gun prosecutions had risen to their highest level ever, though many of the cases were for low-level offenses and often targeted people who had already been convicted by local police. As The Trace has reported, a law enforcement strategy focused on getting more convictions and sending people to jail for longer periods does not reduce rates of violent crime.
Last year, the ATF’s tobacco division was the subject of intense scrutiny after The New York Times reported that officers set up an unauthorized slush fund to pay informants and run operations. The agents sought to disrupt interstate cigarette trafficking schemes, which are intended to profit from different state-level tobacco taxes. But, instead, it appeared that officers and informants made fraudulent sales themselves — and used the proceeds to buy luxury cars.
The White House Office of Management and Budget, which develops the annual budget request, did not immediately return a request for comment. In an emailed statement, ATF spokesman Bradley Engelbert said, “In recent years, ATF’s mission has focused more on violent criminals who use and traffic in firearms, as well as those who illegally use explosives and those who commit arson. ATF will continue to carry out the mission assigned to it by the President and Congress with the ultimate goal of protecting the public and serving the nation.”