President Joe Biden’s nominee to be the nation’s top gun regulator, Steven Dettelbach, faced a somber Senate confirmation hearing the day after a mass shooter killed at least 19 children at a Texas elementary school.
Dettelbach, who has not yet shored up the necessary votes to become the director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, strategically veered away from his own views on gun safety laws during the hearing. Republicans, who have criticized him for previously advocating for an “assault-style” firearms ban, got a pledge from him Wednesday to enforce the nation’s gun laws and combat gun violence.
“Violent crime is increasing. Firearms violence and mass shootings are increasing. Hate crimes and religious violence are increasing, as is violent extremism,” Dettelbach said. “If confirmed, I promise to do everything I can to enforce the law, to respect the Constitution of the United States and to partner with law enforcement to protect the safety and the rights of innocent and law-abiding Americans.”
Democrats, long frustrated by their inability to strike even a narrow deal with Republicans to increase gun regulation, have seen a Senate-confirmed ATF director as a consequential step to better enforcing gun laws. Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.) said during the hearing he “genuinely struggled” in the aftermath of the shooting and condemned “some [who] describe this as unthinkable, unimaginable when in fact it is entirely too predictable.”
“It will happen again and again, until we collectively decide to find a path forward to responsibly address it. And we in the Senate need to have a better answer,” he said. “We have not had a confirmed ATF leader in far too long and it is my hope that we can confirm you.”
Dettelbach previously served as a U.S. attorney in Ohio during former President Barack Obama’s administration. He vowed during the hearing to keep political matters out of consideration if confirmed to the post.
“Politics can play no role in law enforcement. None at all,” he said.
Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) pressed Dettelbach on his vow to enact an assault-style weapons ban during his unsuccessful bid for Ohio attorney general in 2018, asking him to define the term. The nominee replied that “I did not define the term and I haven’t gone through the process of defining that term,” which he said would be the “difficult task” of legislative bodies like Congress.
He also faced questions from Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) about a decline in prosecutions of firearms and explosives crimes over the course of his tenure as U.S. attorney in Ohio. Dettelbach replied that those crimes were always a top priority and that his office “didn’t change our guidelines” throughout his time there.
Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) blasted Congress for failing to provide the agency with sufficient resources to carry out its mandates, saying legislators are “sacrificing our children on the altar of inaction.”
“God bless you and your family, for leading an agency where you’re going to be attacked every single day when you just try to enforce the laws that are on the books. You’re going to be vilified and cursed. I see it happening right now,” Booker said. “The shame is on this body for what we’re not doing to support you.”
Dettelbach enjoys significant support from across the law enforcement community, including a bipartisan group of eight former ATF directors, more than 140 bipartisan former Justice Department officials and the Major County Sheriffs of America, among others. Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) offered a full-throated endorsement in introducing Biden’s pick.
During the hearing, Judiciary Committee Chair Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) called Dettelbach “well-qualified” and pledged to consider the nomination with the “urgency it deserves.”
“It’s high time for the Senate to do this: to confirm an ATF director,” he said. “Not to take guns away from responsible, stable, qualified, law-abiding Americans, but to help stop straw purchases.”
Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), ranking member of the panel, said he still had concerns with the nominee. Of the shooting, he said: “Schools should be a safe place for students and educators. It’s a sad time when you see all this on television and when it’s gone you kind of forget about it.”
Dettelbach told senators he’d hugged his kids “just a little bit harder” on Tuesday evening following the mass shooting.
There has been no Senate-confirmed director for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives since 2015, when Todd Jones stepped down. Biden’s White House pulled the last nominee to the post, David Chipman, after a handful of Democratic opposition promised to sink him. Dettelbach still needs to gain the backing of several undecided moderate Democrats to have any hope of being confirmed.
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