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House Republicans press ATF leader at oversight hearing

Jordan describes agency director as effectively a 'one-man Congress' on gun regulations

Members of Moms Demand Action, a gun violence prevention organization, listen to Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., speak Wednesday during a House Judiciary Committee oversight hearing where Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives Director Steven Dettelbach testified.
Members of Moms Demand Action, a gun violence prevention organization, listen to Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., speak Wednesday during a House Judiciary Committee oversight hearing where Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives Director Steven Dettelbach testified. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

House Republicans prodded the chief of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives during a hearing Wednesday, questioning his expertise and criticizing a rule that would toughen regulations on firearms with stabilizing braces.

The House Judiciary Committee hearing featured testy exchanges with Republican lawmakers, who at times cut off ATF Director Steven Dettelbach or accused him of not answering their questions.

“I’m not getting anything from him,” Texas Republican Rep. Troy Nehls said as he interrupted an answer from Dettelbach. “I just want the American people, everybody to understand, you’re going after veterans, individuals like myself.”

The tone of the hearing underscored GOP grievances with the agency and with a rule that would require gun owners before June to register pistols with stabilizing braces that turn them into short-barreled rifles.

Republicans on the committee have called the regulation an overreach, have advanced a joint resolution to block it, and have said the ATF has given conflicting messages in the past on the topic. The rule will expose unknowing gun owners to criminal liability, Republicans argue, and the device was designed to help people with disabilities.

Judiciary Chairman Jim Jordan of Ohio criticized the rule Wednesday and said Dettelbach has in essence become a “one-man Congress.”

Jordan said the rule was not due to legislation approved by Congress, but instead a result of “unelected bureaucrats simply enacting a new regulation.”

“That’s not how it’s supposed to work in our great country. Congress writes the laws, and the executive branch enforces them,” Jordan said. “Here the executive branch has taken power from Congress in deciding what the law should be.”

Democrats respond

Democrats, who have defended the ATF, sought to turn attention to the toll of American gun violence.

During questioning from Texas Democratic Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, Dettelbach said that from looking at public photos, a shooter at an elementary school in Nashville last month was equipped with a firearm that had a stabilizing brace.

Rep. Jerrold Nadler, the top Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, said the ATF is tasked with keeping guns out of the wrong hands, and argued that Republicans were aiming to pressure, intimidate and hamstring the agency.

Local law enforcement depends on the agency to provide resources that help them prevent gun violence and solve crimes, Nadler said.

The New York Democrat also pointed to legislation that would abolish the ATF, a measure supported by some House Republicans.

“That’s right. They seek to eliminate the law enforcement agency responsible for protecting communities from gun violence, stopping gun trafficking and ensuring lawful and responsible gun ownership,” Nadler said.

Legislation that would do away with the ATF is sponsored by Republican Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida.

“I am one of those MAGA Republicans that would defund your salary, your agency,” Gaetz told Dettelbach at the hearing. “And I think all these good things that you say exist could happen with those folks at the local and state level. And this is a terrible abuse of power.”

Moments later, California Democratic Rep. Adam B. Schiff said the GOP has become a party that’s anti-ATF, anti-FBI and anti-law enforcement.

“My colleagues on the other side of the aisle treat you like you’re some kind of a mass shooter, instead of someone trying to protect us from the epidemic of gun violence,” Schiff said.

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