By Joe Holley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 11, 2008
Rex D. Davis, 83, a former director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms who began his law-enforcement career collaring moonshiners in Oklahoma and who presided over ATF's transition into an independent bureau, died Jan. 7 at Suburban Hospital in Bethesda of complications from a colon infection.
Mr. Davis joined what is now the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives after receiving a law degree from the University of Oklahoma in 1949. He became a "revenuer" -- staking out moonshiners in the woods at night, raiding stills and busting barrels of potent moonshine with an ax.
On one occasion, deep in the woods, Mr. Davis confronted a still operator and the man's 14-year-old son. The moonshiner leveled a rifle at Mr. Davis, who grabbed his own pistol and the teenager simultaneously. He talked the moonshiner into giving up.
"It was the closest I ever came to shooting anybody," he told The Washington Post in 1978.
On another occasion, he lost track of a moonshiner but came across the man's horse. Mr. Davis jumped astride, and the loyal steed led the lawman to its owner. "It stood up in court, too," Mr. Davis recalled.
"It was very exciting," he told The Post. "It was the kind of profession that you either love it or hate it."
Mr. Davis loved it, although his law enforcement work, however fulfilling, became a bit less exciting when he was named assistant regional commissioner for ATF's Central Region, based in Cincinnati.
He became director of ATF in 1970. During his tenure, ATF was upgraded from a division of the Internal Revenue Service to an independent bureau within the Treasury Department.
"From an agency that limped after rumrunners and hassled people about tax stamps, Davis turned ATF into the country's chief investigator of political terrorists and organized criminals in the booze business," Bob Levey wrote in The Post.
A longtime resident of the District, Mr. Davis was born in Skiatook, Okla., and grew up in Claremore, Okla. After the Pearl Harbor attack, he left the University of Oklahoma to join the U.S. Army Air Forces. Commissioned a second lieutenant in 1942, he was a bombardier in the 401st Bombardment Group and flew 33 combat missions in 1944 and 1945. He received the Purple Heart for wounds suffered on a mission over Europe.
He was the author of numerous articles in the trade publications "Police" and "The Police Chief" and of a book, "Federal Searches and Seizures" (1964). He was a 1965-66 fellow in public affairs at Princeton University.
Retiring from government service in 1978, he served as president of the National Association of Beverage Importers, president and chief executive of New Europe Wines and executive director of the President's Forum of the Beverage Alcohol Industry. He was a founding member of the National Law Enforcement Museum in Washington.
He also continued to offer his views on high-profile law enforcement issues. In a 1993 article in USA Today, he described ATF's disastrous raid on the Branch Davidian compound near Waco, Tex., as more a commentary on societal ills than on the bureau's shortcomings.
"Law enforcement involving cults is a fairly new situation," he said. "There aren't many cults repeatedly breaking federal laws and having a philosophy of Armageddon."
He was a strong supporter of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. In 2005, he joined another former ATF director, Stephen Higgins, in expressing "grave concern" about bills in Congress "that threaten to block law enforcement efforts by the ATF, as well as state governments."
Congress at the time was poised to pass legislation that would immunize firearms dealers from lawsuits brought by victims of gun violence and to ban enforcement proceedings by ATF to prevent violations by dealers.
"As former directors of ATF under six presidents, we are appalled that members of Congress would support special-interest legislation to protect dangerous gun dealers rather than laws that would protect the American people," Mr. Davis and Higgins wrote in the Baltimore Sun.
His marriage to Patricia Humphreys Davis ended in divorce.
Survivors include his wife of 29 years, Amelia Fry Davis of the District; and two daughters from his first marriage, Deborah Slovin of Hilton Head, S.C., and Kathleen Mancini of Milford, Ohio.