Tracking the World's Worst: How the ATF Became a Powerhouse Protector

You’re likely already familiar with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF).

The organization’s most famous agent, Eliot Ness, took down Al Capone and Chicago’s organized crime scene in the 1930s, and over the years they’ve brought divisive figures to justice including William Dodge, the Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan, and David Koresh, leader of the Branch Davidians cult. In the 1993 World Trade Center bombings, ATF agents traced the vehicle that was used, leading to major arrests. While they’ve had headline-worthy cases throughout the years, it’s the work behind the scenes that makes the ATF one of the government’s most powerful agencies.


The ATF became an independent bureau on July 1, 1972. Today, as part of the Department of Justice, it oversees the investigation and prevention of federal offenses including:

  • The unlawful use, manufacturing and possession of firearms and explosives
  • Acts of arson and bombings
  • Illegal trafficking of alcohol and tobacco products
  • Regulation of and licensing for interstate sale, possession and transportation of firearms, ammunition and explosives


As of 2019, the ATF had more than 5,000 employees including industry operations investigators (IOI), administrative, professional and technical experts, and special agents. The bureau also includes Special Response Teams (SRT), elite tactical groups that deal with high-risk operations and investigations of the nation’s most violent crimes.

Training for special agents is twofold. It begins with the fundamentals in conducting criminal investigations including firearms training, interviewing, surveillance and even things like photography and driving. After the first 12 weeks, trainees go on to a more intensive program that includes identifying firearms and ammunition, undercover techniques, physical conditioning and explosives and arson investigations. IOIs have a shorter, 10-week program to arm them with the knowledge to conduct inspections of firearms and explosives licensees/permittees and assist other government law enforcement agencies.


In addition to its domestic and international field offices, the ATF also operates a fire research lab in Maryland where they reconstruct full-scale mockups of arson crimes. The bureau’s scientifically proven techniques and expertise have made them the US’s top source for explosives and fire investigations.

While arson and explosives cases are an important part of the ATF’s work, firearms remain at the top of their caseload. As of 2019, there were 130,048 active firearms licensees. In that same year, the agency conducted 13,079 firearms compliance inspections and initiated 35,790 criminal firearms investigations (a large leap above arson, with only 2,052 criminal investigations). The ATF’s work with firearms aims to increase public safety, reduce violent crimes and spread awareness at the state level about available federal prosecution.


Today, the ATF is led by Regina Lombardo, the first female acting director in the bureau’s history. Lombardo follows a legacy of women in the ATF who started as prohibition agents. She began her career in law enforcement in 1992 as a special agent in the ATF Miami Field Division. Over the years, she rose in the ranks with management positions in various departments including human resources, field operations and drug trafficking. In her role as acting director, she oversees the day-to-day operations for the entire bureau.

As the state of the world shifts and criminal minds advance, the ATF now focuses largely on violent crime. From high-profile to little-known cases, they continue to keep Americans safe from visible and behind-the-scenes threats. For that, we say “thank you” to the entire bureau.



Article authored by and containing the opinions of Starr Wright USA. This article is offered solely for informational purposes. Starr Wright USA is a marketing name for Starr Wright Insurance Agency, Inc. and its affiliate(s). Starr Wright USA is an insurance agency specializing in insurance solutions for federal employees and federal contractors. For more information, visit Starr Wright USA is a division of Starr Insurance Companies, which is a marketing name for the operating insurance and travel assistance companies and subsidiaries of Starr International Company, Inc. and for the investment business of C.V. Starr & Co., Inc.