Before Feb. 28, I never gave a nickel’s worth of thought to the federal agency that regulates firearms. But since that chilly Sunday morning more than two months ago, I’ve received a cram course on the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.

It now seems I should have known more about this agency. After all, I am a life-long gun owner and I have spent decades in the news business. To me, the ATF was just another government agency whose name occasionally cropped up in news stories. When I bought a new shotgun or a hunting rifle, I filled out ATF forms. Routine stuff.

Everything changed after that Sunday morning. Just a few miles from here an assault team of more than 100 ATF agents stormed the heavily fortified compound of the Branch Davidians religious cult led by a self-proclaimed messiah. Congress now is investigating the ATF raid and the fiery ending to the 51-day standoff.

The ATF has a lot of supporters, particularly among people who naturally support law enforcement officers. But the ATF, I learned, has picked up critics from across the United States. The Libertarian Party, the nation’s third largest political party, has a long-standing plank in its platform calling for the ATF to be disbanded. Many gun owners and gun dealers are harsh critics of the ATF.

Cult leader Vernon Howell — who called himself David Koresh, Lamb of God, Messiah and Jesus Christ — was a devout critic of the ATF. He preached against the ATF. In his apocalyptic fantasies, he saw the ATF as the embodiment of the sinful forces of Babylon intent upon his destruction.

Received indoctrination

In a sealed ATF affidavit opened after the April 19 fire destroyed the cult’s Mount Carmel compound killing Howell and most of his flock, an ATF agent testified that adult Mount Carmel residents received indoctrination directed against law enforcement officials.

“An ATF special agent working in an undercover capacity was even shown a video recording produced by a group calling itself Gun Owners of America that was specifically derogatory of ATF,” the affidavit says.

I had this image of Howell and his Mighty Men chuckling to themselves as they showed the anti-ATF videotape to a man they knew to be an undercover ATF agent. I thought the tape might be a how-to lesson in fighting gun battles with ATF agents. Not so. I just watched the tape. It’s titled “Breaking the law in the name of the law: The BATF story.”

ATF abuses

Larry Pratt, executive director of Gun Owners of America, sent me a copy. Pratt said the GOA was founded 17 years ago by Bill Richardson who had been on the board of the National Rifle Association. The group concentrates on Second Amendment gun rights with a special emphasis on what it considers as ATF abuses.

The 28-minute tape consists of a series of interviews with police officers, gun dealers and gun owners. They say they are law-abiding citizens who were harassed and abused by arrogant or bumbling ATF agents. The tape even contains an interview with a former ATF chief of enforcement who is now a Washington, D.C., lawyer specializing in defending gun owners from the ATF.

The GOA videotape makes the charge that the ATF lost sight of its original goal to fight crime and violence and collect taxes on legal alcohol and tobacco. It charges the ATF with taking the easy way out by avoiding professional criminals and instead targeting citizens who are either completely innocent or who make technical, non-willful errors in confusing gun laws. These padded arrest quota sheets are used to convince Congress to keep funding the ATF bureaucracy, the tape charges.

How accurate these charges are, I don’t know. The ATF agent in the affidavit correctly described the tape “as derogatory of ATF.” My education continues.

Rowland Nethaway’s column appears Wednesdays and Fridays. 

Read the Tribune-Herald's 7-part investigative series on the inner workings of the Branch Davidians. Hours after Part 2 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.

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.

Federal officials left the compound site in late May 1993. As identifications of bodies continued, questions about the survivors, the compound and the cult itself began to emerge.

As the world began to take a critical look back at the events and legal proceedings continue, the ATF's bombshell report forces a shakeup at the top after the raid gone "tragically wrong."

In 1994, the surviving Davidians went on trial in San Antonio. Over six weeks, more than 140 witnesses testified, with the verdict coming just two days prior to the anniversary of the ATF raid.

The Rodenville shootout and the 1988 trial, the end of the world in 1959 and more stories from deep in the Trib archives.