NFATCA Report: V21N8

By John K. Brown, III

Ken Houchens

Many readers of this publication may well remember the days of 2004 and beyond, when Ken Houchens served as the NFA Branch Chief for ATF in Martinsburg, West Virginia, Ken came to this position in hopes that he might be able to help get the workforce of the old NFA Branch in Washington, D.C., on the right track. The mission was further complicated by the need to build a new branch in Martinsburg with a lot of new personnel.

During that same time period, the NFATCA was holding regular meetings with the NFA Branch in an effort to help them strengthen the game plan and to support them with whatever help the industry could provide. Ken opened the door to regular meetings with the NFATCA and we worked tirelessly to help them improve forms processing times. Ken Houchens targeted success, and at the height of that success the NFA Branch was processing Form 3s and 5s within the same week and the average turnaround time for a Form 4 was 22 days. Ken and his team became overnight heroes, thanks to their Herculean efforts.

At one point during this Golden Era, the NFATCA canvased the industry for support and held a formal recognition ceremony in Martinsburg with the NFA Branch management team and the Specialists that represented such a monumental accomplishment. The Assistant Director of ATF, Mr. Lou Raden, hosted this ceremony. The ceremony was celebrated in the ATF newsletter as a first in the history of ATF/Industry relations. From both the industry side of the table and ATF, we all celebrated working together to move forms processing in the right direction. On one memorable occasion, Ken made the trip through Louisville to Knob Creek, in order to address the growing NFA community. Having made this same trip to Knob Creek on numerous occasions, Ken was always given a standing ovation for his team’s performance. The Creek denizens made sure that Ken knew his efforts were appreciated. After leaving the Creek that year, many will remember a pair of shoes that were immortalized on the end of the Knob Creek pole barn with a sign that read: “Ken Houchens [sic] shoes, it will take a lot to fill them!” Those shoes remained in place for almost five years and through two NFA Branch Chiefs that followed Ken. The shoes always remained empty.

Ken Houchens continued to work closely with the NFATCA and tirelessly remained focused on his goal to make it possible to always reduce processing times for all NFA paperwork. As is often the case in business or government, talent is recognized and Ken moved into the ATF Executive Development Program. In less than two years he would take a position in Boston as the Director of Industry Operations (DIO), overseeing some of the largest gun manufacturers in the northeast region. The NFA community held its collective breath.

Even today, Ken brings his tireless work effort to bear in overseeing operations in the northeast. Approaching 30 years of service with ATF, when offered the opportunity to move back to Washington, D.C., Ken Houchens announced his intent to retire and remain in the city he has learned to love: Boston, Massachusetts.

Ken has always been recognized as a hero to the firearms industry. In recent years, he has traveled the world and made many friends, even being proclaimed an ambassador of the North/South Korean DMZ. For those of us who have known Ken for so many years, he has always been regarded as a gentleman, and a calm, easy-going leader among men, always using good judgment and following the regulations, to the letter. He has accomplished what many men fall short of. He has earned the respect and admiration of his peers, his employees and the industry that he has served.

From all of us in the industry, we wish Ken the best of luck in his retirement travels, and we hope to see him at the table with us again soon. As a final farewell to his many friends in the industry, Ken has asked us to publish the following message from him to all of his friends and associates:

I want to take this opportunity to thank the firearms industry for the support you gave me during the five years I was Chief of the NFA Branch. The time has come to move to the next phase in my life. After 30 years of Federal service, I plan to retire on October 28, 2017.

Many of you may know that, prior to my ATF career, I was in the funeral industry serving my apprenticeship in LaGrange, Kentucky, and later managing a funeral home in Shepherdsville, Kentucky. During my years in Shepherdsville, I ran for county coroner and served two years as the President of the Greater Louisville Funeral Limousine Service. In 1984, I returned to college and graduated in 1987 from the University of Louisville. While at the University, I interned for a U. S. Senator in Louisville, then as an intern in Washington during the Reagan Administration. After graduating from U of L, I interviewed for an ATF inspector position. I ticked the option that I was willing to relocate anywhere in the U.S.

My ATF career began August 10, 1987 in Cleveland, Ohio, as a field inspector. At that time, ATF was a regulatory agency under the U.S. Treasury. Steve Higgins was our Director. ATF’s primary mission was alcohol and tobacco regulation and taxation. At that time, ATF was divided into five regions. Cleveland was in the Midwest Region. After Cleveland, I transferred to the Midwest Regional office in Chicago as a management analyst. From Chicago, I transferred to Washington, D.C. as an alcohol specialist. My primary responsibility was in the administration of the Federal Alcohol Administration Act to include proper labeling, proofing and fill standards. During my time in Washington, ATF formed a new branch to monitor alcohol and tobacco smuggling and diversion. I was lucky enough to be one of the first specialists to join the Alcohol and Tobacco Diversion Branch.

In later 1999, I transferred to San Diego, California, as an area supervisor, to establish ATF’s first regulatory office in Southern California. After five years in San Diego, I transferred to Washington, D.C., in December 2003 as the Chief, NFA Branch and was tasked with moving the NFA Branch from Washington to its present location in Martinsburg, West Virginia. In January 2008, I transferred to Boston, Massachusetts, as the Director, Industry Operations covering the six New England states.

It has been a good run. Even though the years as Chief, NFA Branch were difficult at times, I made some wonderful, lifelong friends. I will not name them here, as I will undoubtedly leave someone out. Most of the industry members were supportive and gave me time to turn the branch around and improve processing time. I hope to remain in contact with many of you and plan on visiting some of the industry shows during my retirement. My focus in retirement is international travel photography. Even though I did not run for President in 2008, I still have the t-shirt! Thanks again for your support and friendship.

This article first appeared in Small Arms Review V21N8 (October 2017)
and was posted online on August 18, 2017


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