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Senators talk gun legislation at hearing for Biden pick to lead ATF

Democrats called on the chamber to address the surge in gun violence

Steven Dettelbach, nominated to head the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, is sworn in before testifying Wednesday at his  Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearing.
Steven Dettelbach, nominated to head the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, is sworn in before testifying Wednesday at his Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearing. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

President Joe Biden’s nominee to be the nation’s top gun regulator largely dodged questions on his own views about gun control Wednesday at a confirmation hearing dominated by the previous day’s mass shooting at a Texas elementary school.

Steven Dettelbach, the former prosecutor picked to lead the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, told the Senate Judiciary Committee that he hugged his children “a little bit harder” after the shooting. Authorities said 19 children and two adults died in the attack.

The hearing became about much more than Dettelbach’s qualifications. Democrats used it to call for action on long-languishing gun control proposals such as expanded background checks, a federal assault weapon ban and so-called red flag laws that permit courts to intervene with those deemed dangerous to head off potential mass murders.

Every Democrat at Wednesday’s hearing urged the Senate to take steps to address the surge in gun violence, including a longtime proponent of gun control laws, Sen. Dianne Feinstein.

The California Democrat called for reinstatement of the federal assault weapon ban she led to passage in 1994, arguing it could cut down on mass shootings like the one in Uvalde, Texas, and a racist mass shooting in Buffalo, N.Y., earlier this month that left 10 dead.

“There is simply no reason that average citizens need weapons of war to go about their daily life, and this is especially true of teenagers,” Feinstein said. “The shooters in both Texas and New York were not old enough to buy a beer, but they were able to buy an assault weapon.”

Meanwhile, Republicans focused most of their questions on whether Dettelbach would back various Democratic gun control proposals, as well as his record as a prosecutor and his calls for an assault weapon ban while running for Ohio attorney general.

Shooting response

Illinois Democratic Sen. Richard J. Durbin, the panel chair and majority whip, used the hearing to announce that Senate leaders plan to hold votes on background check proposals when the chamber returns from its Memorial Day break.

Durbin also noted Dettelbach’s support from federal law enforcement officials and called him “well qualified” for a key position in the effort to curb a wave of mass shootings.

“It’s high time for the Senate to do this, to confirm an ATF director, not to take guns away from responsible, stable, qualified law-abiding Americans, but to help stop straw purchases, combat gun trafficking, ensure that families can send their kids to school safely and law enforcement officers can return home each day to their loving families,” Durbin said.

Dettelbach, who has not secured the support of key moderate Democrats concerned about the rights of gun owners, said he would keep his own views out of enforcing federal gun laws.

“Politics can play no role in law enforcement,” Dettelbach said. “None at all.”

And Dettelbach pledged that, if confirmed, he would “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.”

Republican questions

Dettelbach did his best to avoid answering questions about his views on specific gun control proposals, such as when Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., asked about an assault weapon ban.

Dettelbach declined to define an assault weapon, saying “it would only be for a legislative body to do that work.”

“I think it’s very telling that you’re nominated to lead the ATF and you don’t have a definition of assault weapon,” Cotton said.

Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., focused his questions on Dettelbach’s time as a U.S. attorney in Ohio, and pointed out that gun crime prosecutions declined during his tenure. “There’s a pattern here,” Hawley said.

Dettelbach replied that his office never changed its policy for taking cases from local and federal law enforcement officials. He also pointed out that he worked through several shutdowns and sequestration — and the office was once so short-staffed he had to work the reception desk.

Committee ranking member Sen. Charles E. Grassley, R-Iowa, criticized the Biden administration’s approach to combating gun violence, particularly the removal earlier this year of Marvin Richardson as acting director in favor of Gary Restaino.

“I’m concerned that this administration is responding to demands to focus on the ATF regulatory responsibilities at the expense of law enforcement duties,” Grassley said.

ATF efforts

Democrats pushed back on Republican criticism of the administration, with Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., and others arguing Congress has placed too many restrictions on the ATF. Booker pointed to the agency’s largely stagnant budget and the fact that federal law prohibits the agency from computerizing its records.

“I’ve lost kids I know, I see shrines on the streets,” Booker, who once served as the mayor of Newark, said. “And when my law enforcement wants to do the job, in partnership with the ATF, there is barrier after barrier put up by Congress.”

A few moderate senators, among them Maine independent Sen. Angus King and Montana Democratic Sen. Jon Tester, have remained undecided about Dettelbach’s nomination.

Biden withdrew his first choice for the role, former ATF official David Chipman, last year after Chipman’s gun control advocacy became a flashpoint in his confirmation process.

The agency has only had one Senate-confirmed director, B. Todd Jones, since a 2006 law made it subject to Senate confirmation. Jones left the agency in 2015, and it has gone without a permanent director since.

Texas Republican Sens. Ted Cruz and John Cornyn did not participate in the hearing. Cornyn’s office said he and Cruz traveled to Texas in the wake of the Uvalde shooting.

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