WASHINGTON – Former federal prosecutor Steven Dettelbach was narrowly confirmed 48-46 to lead the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco Firearms and Explosives, the first permanent leader for the nation’s gun enforcement agency in seven years.
The divided Senate vote again highlighted stark political divisions on firearms policy, but it also delivered on one of President Joe Biden’s calls to bolster an agency that gun rights groups have long sought to neuter.
Pressure to confirm Dettelbach, however, had mounted following a succession of mass shootings, including in Buffalo, New York, Uvalde, Texas and Highland Park, Ill.
Attorney General Merrick Garland lauded the Senate action.
“Today, for the second time in history, the United States Senate has voted to give ATF long-overdue Senate-confirmed leadership,” Garland said. “As a career prosecutor and the former U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Ohio, Steve understands the importance and urgency of ATF’s mission, and I am confident he will lead ATF with integrity, dedication, and skill.”
During a confirmation hearing in May, Dettelbach vowed to ”never let politics influence my actions as ATF director.”
“Politics has absolutely no place in law enforcement,” Dettelbach said then.
Politics, however, has long shadowed an agency that has been without a Senate-confirmed director – a measure of the potent influence of the nation’s gun rights groups who helped derail the Biden administration’s first selection for the post, ardent gun control advocate and former ATF official David Chipman.
Biden was forced to withdraw Chipman’s nomination in September after opposition from Sen. Angus King, an independent from Maine, who caucuses with Democrats.
The ATF has been overseen by a series of acting leaders since 2006. Over the past 15 years, the gun lobby’s congressional allies blocked every nominee with the exception of B. Todd Jones, who was confirmed in 2013 but stepped down from the post two years later.
In 2020, conservatives derailed Donald Trump’s nomination of Chuck Canterbury, the former president of the Fraternal Order of Police, over concerns he would support expanded background checks for firearm purchases, among other gun control measures.
The NRA has opposed Dettelbach, saying Biden had sought to “double-down on his attempt to put a gun control advocate in charge” of the agency.
“Like Chipman, Dettelbach is a dedicated gun controller with a background that proves he would be neither fair nor objective as head of ATF,” the group said after Dettelbach’s nomination earlier this year.
The National Shooting Sports Foundation, a gun industry trade group, didn’t mount the same opposition campaign with Dettelbach as it did with Chipman, but still expressed concerns.
“Mr. Dettelbach has not abandoned previous policy positions embracing bans on entire classes of firearms, universal background checks that are unworkable without instituting a national firearm registry which is forbidden by federal law,” said Mark Oliva, NSSF’s spokesman, adding he had concerns about a crackdown on gun dealers.
Biden and the Justice Department announced an enforcement emphasis on what they called a “zero-tolerance” policy on rogue gun dealers.
USA TODAY and The Trace published a report in 2021 showing gun dealers nationwide flouting the rules, selling weapons to convicted felons and domestic abusers, lying to investigators and fudging records to mask their unlawful conduct. In many cases when the ATF caught dealers breaking the law, the agency issued warnings, sometimes repeatedly, and allowed the stores to operate for months or years
Dettelbach had the support of gun violence prevention groups like Everytown for Gun Safety, Giffords and Guns Down America.
“This new director has to prioritize tracking down and making a real dent in illegal gun trafficking and stepping up oversight on gun manufacturers that are making record profits,” said Igor Volsky, executive director of Guns Down America. ”Both of those pieces are really important ensuring we’re not over-criminalizing the end user, but really focused on our enforcement upstream, manufacturers and bad apple gun dealers.”