WASHINGTON — Before 1993, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms went about its business in the relative obscurity afforded most government agencies.
Then came Waco.
When the smoke cleared from the April 19 inferno at David Koresh's Branch Davidian compound in central Texas, 95 people were dead - and the ATF bore the brunt of the blame for what was, by most accounts, a terribly flawed raid.
Suddenly, Americans wanted to know more about the agency that polices guns, liquor, and cigarettes - a sort of holdover from the Elliot Ness era. Enemies disparaged ATF agents as "jack-booted thugs," and its very name fanned the antigovernment sentiments of, among others, Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh.
But today, three years after that infamous truck bomb struck at federal workers in Oklahoma City, the ATF has regained the confidence of Congress, which signs off on its $500 million annual budget, and rehabilitated, at least in part, its image with the public.
"Law enforcement in general has learned its lessons and learned from mistakes," says Raymond Kelly, undersecretary for enforcement at the Treasury Department, which oversees the ATF. "There has been a change in philosophy about the use of force."
After Waco, the bureau endured scorching chastisements from the Treasury Department, Congress, and the public, forcing it to reexamine its tactics. Now, when confronted with complex hostage situations like that in Waco, "there is a lot more deliberate use of dialogue and perimeter control," says Mr. Kelly.
Its new approach has been put to the test. The ATF was an adviser last spring at the Republic of Texas standoff in the west Texas hills and at the Freemen standoff in Montana a year earlier. In both cases, armed antigovernment groups were wanted by authorities for wrongdoing. Negotiation and patience brought mostly peaceful resolutions, although in Texas two of the men opted to shoot it out.
The bureau has also become more open in explaining its larger mission. It issues gun licenses to dealers, collects nearly $14 billion in revenue (including that from cigarette taxes), and regulates the labels the alcohol industry puts on its bottles and cans.
It's a change in priority. Created in 1972, the ATF had always focused on getting convictions in its cases, not on teaching the public and Congress about its successes or explaining its failures.
"People will make you into whatever they believe you are in the absence of hearing from you," says an ATF special agent.
In the ATF's post-Waco world, communication and outreach became priorities for John Magaw, who became director at the height of the bureau's troubles.
As a result, the ATF has quietly reinforced its image as a streamlined, scientific agency. Headquarters has created a Web site, where most of its programs are explained to the public (www.atf.treas.gov). Its investigators were highly visible in their meticulous work of finding clues to the Olympic Park bombing and the crash of TWA Flight 800, both in July 1996. Thirty agents worked full time with other agencies in Oklahoma City, sorting through the forensic evidence to link Mr. McVeigh to the Alfred P. Murrah Building bombing, which occurred three years ago this Sunday.
"We are not attempting to market this agency," says ATF spokesman Jeffrey Roehm. "We just want people to be aware of how we serve and why we do what we do."
While the bureau has come a long way in overcoming its image problems, animosity still runs deep within many firearms organizations. The Internet, too, is rife with anti-ATF sentiment.
Some critics cite the ATF's National Tracing Center, headquartered in West Virginia, an example of the agency's intrusive reach. The center is the US government's most extensive clearinghouse for information on firearm identification. It expects to trace hundreds of thousands of guns this year, pinpointing the place of sale and working up to the weapon's owner at the time it was used in a crime.
More to do?
Moreover, accusations have not ended of rogue ATF agents willing to subvert the process to make a case.
"Things have not changed. They are still tromping in a repressive manner," says Robert Brown, a board member of the National Rifle Association, and editor and publisher of Soldier of Fortune magazine. "They will do anything to build a case no matter what laws they violate."
Mr. Brown points to a case in northern Kentucky in December 1996, in which ATF agents searched the home and business of Arthur Alphin, a custom rifle maker. The Alphins have filed civil charges against the agents, claiming they did not identify themselves, were abusive, and destroyed property during the search.
Mr. Alphin was never arrested; the charges listed on the search warrant (selling guns abroad illegally and money laundering) have not been pressed. Alphin says he has suffered financially from the raid. The ATF confiscated computer equipment and business records and held them for months, he says.
"The ATF may have rehabilitated its image, but the lawbreaking, renegade agents are still there," Alphin says.
"The reality is, as a society we haven't decided what we want to do about guns, and the ATF is caught in the middle," says William Vizzard, professor of criminal justice at California State University in Sacramento, speaking to the ATF's role as the nation's gun cop.