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The Real Poop

If you dream of defending America's Automated Teller Machines, you are in the wrong place. Please see: ATM Agent.

Picture this: It is 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 up over a fence; another agent crawls out from underneath some bushes while five more are running 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 is not because he refused to take down his Christmas lights. Mr. Harris, like many others who have been arrested by the ATF, has been illegally selling firearms.

It is 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 in order to defend oneself. Pretty sure you don’t need an uzi to ward off an intruder. A large percentage of the ATF's job is to keep people like Mr. Harris from being able to illegally obtain guns and sell them to criminals. Because illegal firearms are difficult to purchase in Mexico, a criminal highway has opened up which has left many dead. In addition to eradicating the illegal firearms trade, the ATF protects Americans from the illegal use of explosives, violent criminal organizations, terrorism, bombings, and arson. To bust criminals, ATF agents collect evidence through surveillance and search warrants. Many ATF agents go undercover to infiltrate criminal organizations such as Hell's Angels or Mexican cartels. This is not a job for those with nervous stomachs. Throwing up on a drug lord's shoes will get you into a world of hurt.

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives has a history that can be traced back to 1789. To offset the debt accrued by the Revolutionary War, the first Congress imposed a tax on spirits.

Later, Congress charged the Office of Internal Revenue with collecting taxes on spirits and tobacco. During the 1930s, the nation was troubled over the immense weaponry that organized crime wielded, which led to the National Firearms Act. During the Nixon era, the Treasury Department transferred all duties relating to tobacco, firearms, alcohol, and explosives to the ATF. You might think they would be called the ATFE, but at the time there was a crippling initial shortage in the acronym industry, so the bureau had to settle for “ATF.”

Today, ATF agents conduct investigations of violations relating to any of the materials or substances that fall within their jurisdiction. In addition, agents gather evidence, arrest suspects, seize illegal goods, and search for criminal violations of Federal laws. They can't search anyone’s property on a whim. If they get tipped off that you are stockpiling guns and hanging out with shady characters, they can obtain a search warrant through a judge. To be an ATF agent, you can’t be afraid of being shot, nor of being swamped with piles of paperwork. Both may happen and sometimes on the same day. Furthermore, agents are called upon to testify in court hearings after their investigation.

Many of those interested in criminal law and law enforcement set their sails for a career as an ATF agent. An agent's typical day at work is exciting, perilous, and physically demanding. This career offers up some dangerous challenges. Turns out some of the people in possession of illegal firearms are not the most acquiescent of individuals during an attempted arrest. Go figure.

Because numerous people are attracted to this field of law enforcement, competition to get in is fierce. You have a better chance becoming a cop. However, 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. 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.…" Oh, okay…we see what you did there.

Furthermore, applicants must have a bachelor’s degree to apply at 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. Conversely, the higher a GL number an individual has, the bigger deal they are. For entry-level positions, applicants generally major in Criminal Justice, Political Science, Sociology, or Psychology. 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 helps when securing a position. There is some overlap when it comes to the duties of an ATF agent and a police officer. Like police officers, ATF agents collect evidence, conduct raids, investigate crimes, and serve warrants. Police officers do not work as extensively undercover and make less money. 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. If not, become a real estate agent or perhaps a pro sports agent.

A graduate degree in Criminal Justice, Political Science, Sociology, and Psychology will pay off when you are conducting investigations. Agents must be able to have an eye for details, like for noticing that a drug dealer has quietly slipped out of his front door, excellent cognitive skills such as learning how to handle weaponry, and problem-solving know-how. Sometimes, you have to employ your problem-solving capabilities when getting a 300-pound biker to admit that she is selling firearms. Gathering evidence like fingerprints, voice recordings, and video has moments of pure excitement, but there is a lot of paperwork that goes along with being an ATF agent. Even after you have completed the 27-week training required for being an agent, you are given a three-year probationary period. The ATF is not 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 had better get ready for a huge lawsuit that could cost you the job.

Agents must be willing to relocate anywhere in the country. While the ATF is headquartered in Washington, D.C., they have field offices all over the country and in U.S. territories as well. Agents also travel extensively. We are not counting the two weeks out of every year that they spend in Orlando with their families.

Our Uncle Jerry always gets mistaken for the Beast.

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 have to get ready to roll with the punches. Sometimes literally.