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Senate confirms former prosecutor to run agency overseeing gun laws

Steven Dettelbach is first confirmed ATF director in seven years

Steven Dettelbach was confirmed Tuesday to run the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
Steven Dettelbach was confirmed Tuesday to run the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives will have its first permanent leader in seven years after a bipartisan Senate vote Tuesday confirmed former federal prosecutor Steven Dettelbach for the role.

Dettelbach, President Joe Biden’s second pick to run the agency, was confirmed 48-46 with the support of two Republicans. The nomination was part of a broader effort to address gun violence amid a wave of mass shootings nationwide.

Biden has referred to Dettelbach as “immensely qualified” for the role. Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, used a floor speech Tuesday to spotlight Dettelbach’s effort to prosecute violent crime, including an arson at an Ohio church, while a federal prosecutor.

“I can think of no better way to keep Americans safe from violent crime than for the Senate to confirm Steven M. Dettelbach ATF director,” Brown said.

Sens. Susan Collins, R-Maine, and Rob Portman, R-Ohio, supported Dettelbach’s nomination along with all Democrats in the chamber. Collins and Portman also voted with Democrats to bring Dettelbach’s nomination to the Senate floor last month after the Senate Judiciary Committee deadlocked.

Dettelbach’s nomination hearing came the day after the mass shooting at the elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, and days after a race-driven attack on a supermarket in Buffalo, N.Y. Dettelbach, who had the backing of numerous police and gun control organizations, faced Republican opposition over past prosecutions for gun crimes in Ohio and statements in favor of gun control when he ran unsuccessfully to be the state’s attorney general.

Three Democrats missed the vote. Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer of New York and Connecticut Sen. Richard Blumenthal are isolating after testing positive for COVID-19, while Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy is recovering from hip replacement surgery.

Following the passage in June of the first bipartisan legislation to address gun violence in decades, Biden has faced pressure from Democrats and gun control groups for tougher measures. At a White House event touting the law on Monday, Biden’s remarks were interrupted by a man arguing “You have to do more.” 

Biden withdrew his first nominee to the position, David Chipman, last year after Chipman’s gun control advocacy drew criticism from conservatives and some Democrats. Moderate Sens. Joe Manchin III, D-W.Va., and Jon Tester, D-Mont., withheld their support from Chipman, but supported Dettelbach.

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.

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