“We are comfortable with our established order of things. Don’t go upsetting the serenity of our ignorance,” wrote a former U.S. Navy aviator who has been trying to educate me about the outpouring of anti-government and the anti-ATF sentiment we have been receiving at the Tribune-Herald following the tragic Feb. 28 Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms assault on the heavily armed Branch Davidian religious cult outside Waco.

“Let the government take care of the nuts and fanatics who dare to be different,” said Roy Neuman, who traded in his wings of gold for a bulldozer in his contracting business. “Government has never been wrong before. Why worry about it now.”

Neuman’s mocking letter was another attempt to make me understand why so many people dislike the government and the ATF. I shouldn’t have said I was confused by the volume of anti-government and anti-ATF expressions if I didn’t want to be educated on the subject.

Forget the Nazi government that killed millions of its own citizens, Neuman said. Likewise, the Soviet government. “That was somewhere else. Our government wouldn’t do that,” he said, evidently thinking otherwise.

Roots in rebellion

The ATF can trace its roots back to the government’s earliest attempts to collect taxes. During the violent 1791 Whiskey Rebellion, the government had to send agents out to collect taxes on distilled spirits by force. These agents weren’t very popular in some quarters.

During Prohibition the government again dispatched federal agents to crack down on bootleggers. Government agent Eliot Ness used tax laws to bust Chicago gangster Al Capone. The public supported the feds for busting the gangsters, but not so much for their door-busting tactics used against small-time Prohibition law-breakers.

These forerunners of today’s ATF agents also were the revenuers who engaged in high-speed chases and guerrilla warfare against moonshiners throughout much of the rural South. While many Southerners grew up hating the revenuers, they also can thank them for the mythological car chases that some say became the sport of stock car racing.

A stronger ATF?

These Treasury agents also were chosen to enforce federal explosive laws and gun-control laws, passed in the 1930s and 1960s. For some time, they were the collection agents for the IRS. These activities didn’t go over well with lots of citizens.

Conservatives, gun-owners and gun-dealers have been especially critical of the ATF. An official with the Libertarian Party, which opposes the ATF, said the National Rifle Association’s magazine often chronicles ATF abuses.

When former Texas Gov. John Connally was secretary of the Treasury, he ordered an investigation into a highly publicized 1971 raid the ATF conducted on a Maryland man’s home based on bad information from a burglary informant. The homeowner, who had no illegal weapons, was shot and paralyzed.

Even former President Reagan made an effort to disband the ATF. But despite all criticism, the ATF continues to land on its feet, ahead of its critics.

Despite the second-guessing and the criticism resulting from ATF’s tragic Feb. 28 assault on the Branch Davidians compound, the irony is that the ATF could come out of all this stronger than ever.

Stronger gun-control laws are a possibility. That would strengthen the ATF. The Clinton administration is prepared to boost alcohol and tobacco taxes, which is expected to increase the bootlegging of these products. That would strengthen the ATF.

It appears the surprising number of ATF critics will continue to have something to worry about for years to come.

Rowland Nethaway’s column appears Wednesday and Fridays.

Read the Tribune-Herald's 7-part investigative series on the inner workings of the Branch Davidians. Hours after Part Two appeared in print, the ATF raided the group's compound.

Read the Tribune-Herald’s account of the ATF raid on the Branch Davidian compound on Feb. 28, 1993. Four ATF agents and six in the compound were killed in the gunfight.

Read the daily news accounts of the 51-day siege at the Branch Davidian compound near Elk, which began Feb. 28 and lasted until April.

Read the accounts of April 19 and beyond: FBI agents began inserting canisters of tear gas into the Branch Davidian compound in the early morning hours. By noon, it was on fire.