Texas school shooting precedes Senate hearing on pick to run ATF

President Joe Biden wants to give the gun regulation agency a permanent leader for the first time since 2015

Steven Dettelbach, President Joe Biden's nominee to lead the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, speaks during an event about gun violence in the Rose Garden of the White House in April. 
 (Drew Angerer/Getty Images file photo)
Steven Dettelbach, President Joe Biden's nominee to lead the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, speaks during an event about gun violence in the Rose Garden of the White House in April. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images file photo)
Posted May 24, 2022 at 4:11pm, Updated at 6:28pm

Steven Dettelbach starts the most public part of his effort to become only the second person to successfully run the Senate confirmation gantlet to lead the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives in a political high-wire act at a hearing Wednesday before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

His nomination coincides with a recent surge in mass shootings and other gun violence that likely will dominate the hearing. Senators will question Dettelbach the morning after a gunman killed 14 students and a teacher at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, and 10 days after a racially motivated gunman killed 10 people at a grocery store in a historically Black neighborhood of Buffalo, N.Y., according to authorities in those states.

The Texas shooting comes a little less than 10 years since the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Conn., where a shooter killed 26 students and teachers. That and other mass shootings have prompted pushes for gun control legislation from Democrats that have stalled amid Republican opposition in the Senate.

Connecticut Democratic Sen. Christopher S. Murphy, a leading voice on those efforts after Sandy Hook, took to the Senate floor Tuesday after the Texas shooting to “beg” Republicans to take action on gun regulations. “Find a path forward here. Work with us to find a way to pass laws that make this less likely,” Murphy said.

And Judiciary Chairman Richard J. Durbin of Illinois said Congress must act. “I implore — beg — my Republican colleagues to join Democrats in finally making changes to our gun laws to help prevent Americans from reliving this gun tragedy far too often,” Durbin said.

Political headwinds

President Joe Biden pointed to gun violence as a reason he wants to get the ATF a permanent leader for the first time since 2015. The president pulled his first nominee for the position last year amid opposition from firearms advocacy groups, Republicans and, reportedly, some Democrats.

Dettelbach faces the same political winds around gun regulations, one of the most reliably partisan and passionate issues. The Senate is evenly divided, which means Biden can’t afford any Democratic defections if Republican opposition is united.

Republicans have made rising crime a main issue in the fall midterm elections, while the administration has pushed changes — such as regulating so-called ghost guns and cracking down on straw gun purchases — to rein in shooting deaths nationwide.

Former President Donald Trump is scheduled to appear at a National Rifle Association event in Texas on Friday along with Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, who announced the deaths of the 14 students Tuesday afternoon. Also set to appear at the “celebration of Second Amendment rights” are Texas Republican Sens. John Cornyn and Ted Cruz, both members of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Dettelbach has the backing of prominent federal law enforcement officials and gun control groups like Everytown for Gun Safety and the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence.

Robin Lloyd, the managing director of the Giffords center, said Dettelbach will have to convince moderate Democrats of his “tremendous” track record as a prosecutor.

“I think that the scope of our gun violence crisis in the country is so shocking and so horrible, that regardless of what state a senator's from, they have gun violence in their community and in their state, and I think at the end of the day they recognize the importance of taking action,” Lloyd said.

As Dettelbach answers questions Wednesday, he’ll be watched by a handful of key moderate senators who control the fate of his nomination. Reluctance from three of them helped sink Biden’s first pick to lead the agency, former ATF official and gun control advocate David Chipman.

Montana Democratic Sen. Jon Tester and Maine independent Sen. Angus King have remained on the fence on Dettelbach’s nomination. A spokesman for King said the senator met with Dettelbach last week and plans to monitor his confirmation hearing.

Tester also met with Dettelbach and hasn’t made a decision on the pick, a spokesman for the senator said. “Before making a decision on this nomination, Sen. Tester will be closely reviewing Mr. Dettelbach’s record to ensure he would support our brave law enforcement officers and respect Montanans’ Second Amendment rights,” the spokesman said.

A spokesman for a third moderate, Sen. Joe Manchin III, D-W.Va., declined to comment.

Outside groups

Gun rights groups, including the National Rifle Association and American Firearms Association, have opposed Dettelbach and tied his nomination to Biden’s effort to regulate “ghost guns” and step up enforcement on gun sales.

NRA spokeswoman Amy Hunter called Dettelbach “as extreme a gun control advocate” as Chipman. Hunter said in an email that Dettelbach endorsed gun bans, restrictions on certain sales and expansion of ownership prohibitions.

“While disappointing, it comes as no surprise that President Biden doubled-down and chose another ATF nominee who has a documented history of hostility towards the rights of law-abiding Americans and the American firearms industry,” Hunter wrote.

In an email to supporters Wednesday, AFA President Christopher Dorr referred to Dettelbach as a “henchman” and urged recipients to contact Republican senators to sink the nomination.

“DEFEATING Dettelbach would be a major political loss for Biden — a loss we can deliver by keeping up MASSIVE grassroots heat on the U.S. Senate,” Dorr wrote.

Administration pitch

Dettelbach’s nomination was billed as noncontroversial by the White House, and officials have tied advancing his nomination to addressing a surge in mass shootings in recent years, such as a racist attack in Buffalo that left 10 dead earlier this month.

At a news conference last week, White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre noted that ATF agents are working on cases like the Buffalo shooting.

“If the Senate wants to get their back, they should confirm Steve Dettelbach to lead the agency,” Jean-Pierre said.

Dettelbach, who served as a U.S. attorney in Ohio during the Obama administration, mounted an unsuccessful bid to become Ohio’s attorney general as a Democrat in 2018.

Dettelbach has received significant support from law enforcement groups, including the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association, more than 100 former Justice Department officials, prominent former federal prosecutors and former ATF directors.

The agency, which oversees regulation and enforcement of the nation’s gun laws, has gone without a Senate-confirmed leader since B. Todd Jones stepped down in 2015. The post has been subject to confirmation since 2006.

In the meantime, gun deaths increased to an all-time high of 45,000 in 2020, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.