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Senate hearing for ATF nominee comes at critical point after Texas school shooting

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives hasn’t had a permanent director since 2015.

WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden's nominee to lead the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives faced a barrage of questions about his approach to enforcing gun laws during his confirmation hearing Wednesday — just one day after Texas’ mass school shooting.

While Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee expressed exasperation over congressional inaction on gun violence in the wake of the carnage, Republican members scrutinized the nominee, Steve Dettelbach, and his past support for gun-control measures, including an assault weapons ban.

Dettelbach’s hearing comes at a critical time for the Biden administration, which is facing pressure to deal with a spate of mass shootings, including at a Buffalo, New York, grocery store that left 10 people dead and three wounded this month. The White House and Democrats say the need to confirm a permanent ATF director is even more urgent after an 18-year-old gunman slaughtered 19 children and two teachers Tuesday at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas.

Dettelbach largely sought to steer clear of controversy during the hearing and to assure lawmakers of his dedication to keeping politics out of law enforcement.

"We face many threats to public safety, both new and old," Dettelbach said in opening remarks. "Violent crime is increasing, firearms violence and mass shootings are increasing, hate crimes and religious violence are increasing, as is violent extremism. 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."

The federal agency, which regulates guns and enforces firearm laws, hasn't had a permanent director since 2015. In his opening remarks, committee Chairman Dick Durbin, D-Ill., said that the ATF "has the technical capacity to help us solve gun crimes and to keep guns out of the hands of people who shouldn't have them."

"It is devastating that this kind of mass shooting can happen here," Durbin said. "It is unconscionable that it happens over and over. It is unforgivable that we as leaders have come to the point where we mouth words and do nothing."

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., who helped advance a now-expired assault weapons ban through Congress in the mid-1990s, said Wednesday that there have been more than 200 mass shootings in 2022 and suggested that reimplementing the ban could effectively curb more gun violence.

"This really breaks my heart and it is simply unacceptable," she said. "We know what we need to do to stop this violence. But time and time again, we have failed to do it. We know what protections work to stop these killings."

Republicans, meanwhile, grilled Dettelbach about his previous experience as a federal prosecutor.

Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., pressed Dettelbach about his previous support for the assault weapons ban when he ran unsuccessfully for attorney general in Ohio in 2018. The GOP senator asked how the nominee would define an assault weapon, and Dettelbach repeatedly said that could only be determined by Congress or state legislatures.

"I acknowledge it would be a difficult task to define assault weapons because, on one hand, you don't want it to be so narrow that it doesn't offer the protections that are intended, and on the other hand, you certainly don't want it to be so broad so that infringes unnecessarily on the rights of citizens," he said.

Several Republican senators, including Josh Hawley of Missouri and Mike Lee of Utah, asked Dettelbach why firearms prosecutions dropped while he served as a U.S. attorney in Ohio. The nominee defended his record, saying he focused "significant time and attention" on the issue and "never saw a situation where any person who worked in my office was declining cases."

Lee called it "outrageous" that gun violence prevention groups like Brady and Everytown for Gun Safety are "attempting to profit off of this horrific tragedy in Uvalde, Texas," pointing to their fundraising emails.

Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., appeared to respond to Lee and other Republicans' line of questioning by saying, "It's almost a case of blaming the victims and not blaming the person who's able to walk in and buy a weapon that should be used in a war zone, not in a school zone — the kind of weapons are being used by the Russians in Ukraine should have no place in a school. It's not the time to blame the victims. It's time to blame those who sell weapons of war."

Ranking member Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa., meanwhile, expressed concerns about Dettelbach’s nomination and whether “this administration is responding to demands to focus on the ATF’s regulatory responsibilities at the expense of law enforcement duties.”

Dettelbach tried to remain impartial during the hearing and appealed for bipartisan support by noting that he had worked at the Department of Justice under both Democratic and Republican presidents. Factors that lead to "good regulation" include being fair, consistent and effective in policies, he said.

The confirmation hearing comes as Biden has faced an uphill battle in getting Congress to act on gun control legislation under the evenly split Senate. He nominated Dettelbach in April, several months after the White House was forced to withdraw an initial nominee, David Chipman, because some Democratic senators joined Republicans in opposing his confirmation.

It’s unclear whether Dettelbach has the support in the Senate to be confirmed. Sens. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and Jon Tester, D-Mont., have said they’re looking at his nomination. They were both key skeptics of Chipman, who faced Republican opposition over his support for various gun control measures, including an assault weapons ban. Dettelbach's support for such a ban and universal background checks have drawn concerns from Grassley.

Biden announced his decision to nominate Dettelbach when he unveiled new restrictions on "ghost guns," firearms people build at home that are untraceable to law enforcement. The final rule requires manufacturers of make-your-own gun kits to include serial numbers on the firearms and sellers to follow the same standards as with other guns, including requiring a background check for purchase.

As the U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Ohio during the Obama administration, Dettelbach oversaw more than 170 Justice Department employees. Since leaving that role in 2016, he has served as a partner at law firm Baker Hostetler, working on white-collar crime-related litigation. He previously worked on an organized crime and corruption task force while an assistant U.S. attorney in Cleveland, as an assistant U.S. attorney in Maryland, and for Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., on the Senate Judiciary Committee as a detailee from the Department of Justice.

“Steve is immensely qualified,” Biden said. “He served the Department of Justice for two decades. He worked side by side to support the work of federal, state, and local law enforcement, including ATF agents. Steve also partnered with the community leaders and law enforcement to help prevent violent crime. He’s worked with the police to combat domestic extremism and to take violent criminals off the street.”

Dettelbach was recently endorsed to lead the ATF by the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association, which represents over 26,000 law enforcement professionals across dozens of agencies.

Gun violence prevention advocacy groups such as Brady are calling on the Senate to immediately confirm Dettelbach.

"Less than 24 hours after the second deadliest school shooting in modern American history, the need for comprehensive gun violence prevention solutions has never been clearer. The need for a qualified, Senate-confirmed director to lead ATF is essential to any effort to prevent gun violence," said Brady President Kris Brown. "Steve Dettelbach is well-qualified. He is a proven law enforcement leader and expert, and a prudent choice to steward and modernize ATF so that it can enforce the nation’s laws and keep our communities safe."

When Biden announced the finalized rule on ghost guns in April, he also said his administration was working on other key gun control areas, including going after rogue gun dealers, disrupting illegal gun trafficking and funding community policing programs. It was his second attempt at using executive action to try to curb gun violence after he unveiled other initiatives a year earlier, several months after taking office. At the time, experts said that Biden's actions would have a positive but limited impact.

After the Texas shooting, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., began a process that could lead to votes on two House-passed bills to expand background checks for gun purchases, although 60 votes would be needed to overcome a filibuster and advance the legislation to a final vote. Schumer, however, signaled Wednesday that the upper chamber would not vote on the measures immediately, giving Democrats and Republicans time to negotiate ways to address the horrific mass shootings that have rocked the nation in recent weeks.