The Real Poop
If you dream of defending America's Automated Teller Machines, you're in the wrong place. Please see: ATM Agent.
Picture this: It's a normal, sunny day for a small suburb of Los Angeles until black vans pull up outside of a house. ATF agents swarm like locusts over Mr. Harris' newly planted pansies. One agent climbs over a fence; another crawls out from underneath some bushes while five more run to the front door.
Everyone in the neighborhood watches breathlessly as agents break down the door and pull Mr. Harris out of his house. No, it's not because he refused to take down his Christmas lights. Mr. Harris, like many others who've been arrested by the ATF, has been illegally selling firearms.
It's the job of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives to get illegal guns off the street. What constitutes "illegal" varies from state to state, but generally it refers to weapons that are unregistered or have more firepower than necessary to defend oneself. (We're pretty sure you don't need an uzi to ward off an intruder.)
As if eradicating the illegal firearms trade wasn't enough, the ATF also protects Americans from the illegal use of explosives, violent criminal organizations, terrorism, bombings, and arson. And they do all of that for about $38,388 a year (source). Talk about a bargain, huh?
To bust criminals, ATF agents collect evidence through surveillance and search warrants. Many ATF agents also go undercover to infiltrate criminal organizations such as Hell's Angels or drug cartels. If you couldn't tell, this isn't a job for those with nervous stomachs. Throwing up on a drug lord's shoes will get you into a world of hurt.
You can't be afraid of being shot either, nor of being swamped with piles of paperwork. Well...we suppose you can be afraid, just don't show it. Both may happen and sometimes on the same day.
Furthermore, agents are often called upon to testify in court hearings after their investigation. That's right, as if the arrest itself wasn't dangerous enough, often an agent also has to go on public record as the person who put a violent criminal with multiple underworld connections away. Scary stuff.
Now, this isn't all vigilante Batman stuff. ATF agents operate under strict guidelines, and must always be careful to follow the letter of the law when hunting down the bad guys. For instance, they can't search anyone's property on a whim. If they get tipped off that someone's stockpiling guns and hanging out with shady characters, they must obtain a search warrant through a judge before doing anything.
An agent's typical day at work is exciting, perilous, and physically demanding. It's the ideal job description for many looking to join law enforcement. Perhaps unsurprisingly, competition to get in is fierce. Honestly, you have a better chance becoming a cop. Then again, cops don't get to arrest criminals while wearing bell-bottoms after months of infiltrating a criminal ring of hippies selling explosives made out of hemp.
To get in, special agent applicants are required to pass a series of medical examinations. Agents must have 20/20 vision, maintain a weight that is proportionate to their height, perform strenuous duties, and have excellent hearing. We said, "THEY MUST HAVE EXCELLENT HEARING."
Furthermore, applicants must have a bachelor's degree in something like criminal justice, political science, sociology, or psychology to apply for an entry-level position, designated as GL-05 or GL-07 (the GL is short for Government Liaison).
The more qualified you are, the higher a level you can start out at, and the higher a GL number an individual has, the bigger deal they are. If applying to a higher level (GL-08 or GL-09), a graduate degree is a must.
Work experience at a local or state police department can also help those trying to secure a position, as there's some overlap between the duties of an ATF agent and a police officer. Like police officers, ATF agents collect evidence, conduct raids, investigate crimes, and serve warrants. Starting out in law enforcement also gives those considering a career as an ATF agent a chance first to see if they like this line of work before getting in too deep.
If you did nab that graduate degree, it's going to pay off when you're conducting investigations. Agents must have an eye for detail, like noticing when a drug dealer has quietly slipped out his front door. They also need excellent cognitive skills to help them learn to properly handle weaponry, and apply quick problem solving skill when seconds count. Just try getting a 300-pound biker to admit that she's selling firearms without training and experience. Go on, we dare you.
Gathering evidence like fingerprints, voice recordings, and video has moments of pure excitement, but there's a lot of paperwork that goes along with the job, too. Even after you've completed the twenty-seven-week training required for being an agent, you're still given a three-year probationary period.
The ATF isn't screwing around when it comes to making sure that their agents dot their i's and cross their t's. Bust into someone's house without a warrant and you'd better get ready for a huge lawsuit that could cost you the job.
Becoming an agent also means being okay with relocation. The ATF is headquartered in Washington, D.C., but they have field offices all over the country. And the moving doesn't stop there. Agents are also required to travel extensively, and no, we're not talking about the two weeks out of every year they spend at Disney with the family.
Do you like the comfort and reliability of a regular schedule, a behind-the-desk kind of a job, and safe working environment? If so, the ATF might not be for you.
If you want to join one of the most challenging law enforcement fields, you've got to be ready to roll with the punches. Sometimes literally.